What with the Beatles, the Stones and myriad other popular groups pouring out their songs on the radio and on records in the mid-1960s, we thought we had heard it all. But then along came a scrawny, bushy-headed folk singer with a nasal voice, and he turned all our preconceptions upside down.
Bob Dylan’s music came to us slowly, furtively, often through cover versions by others. And it wasn’t as if we were out there waiting for the arrival of each of his early albums in the early 1960s. No, we had to play catch-up once his two seminal hits, Blowin’ In The Wind and The Times They Are A-Changin’, had announced the arrival of undoubtedly the most powerful influence in modern popular music.
Blowin’ In The Wind was off Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which was released in 1963, a year after his debut album, Bob Dylan. The Times They Are A-Changin’ was off the eponymously titled album from 1964. Both were folk albums, laced with songs using Dylan’s fascinating talking blues style. These two songs were latched onto by the media as reflecting the angst of modern youth, and of course we as that youth, did indeed identify strongly with their message that “the order is rapidly changing”. The anti-war sentiments of Blowin’ In The Wind also struck a chord. “How many deaths will it take till he knows, that too many people have died.” Anyone hoping to play the guitar would attempt to play these songs, and in the grounds of the Bonza Bay Hotel, a visiting troubadour known as Scotchie (Ian MacDonald) would include these songs in his repertoire as he entertained a group of admiring holidaymakers around 1966 with these and many other folk songs from the era, not least those of Dylan’s UK “competition”, Donovan. So, around the mid-1960s, when I was about 10, it was these two songs which alerted us to the Dylan phenomenon, even though initially I had a spontaneous dislike for Dylan’s voice. Gradually, as we started to listen to his albums, that dislike turned to an obsessive admiration that has lasted till today.
But who was this upstart who became an icon? Wikipedia says he was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in
As I have long contended, and Wikipedia supports me here, “much of Dylan’s most notable work dates from the 1960s, when he became an informal documentarian and reluctant figurehead of American unrest”. I recall a few years back writing an article in the local Herald newspaper to the effect that he seemed to lose his way, especially in the eighties and nineties, and in response there came a vituperative letter with allusions to myself and a certain “idiot wind”. Confirming my above-mentioned contention, Wikipedia says songs such as Blowin’ In The Wind and The Times They Are a-Changin’ “became anthems of the anti-war and civil rights movement”. It adds that his comeback in 2006, with Modern Times, saw that album chart at No 1, the oldest living person to top the charts.
While evolving his own music style, he remained devoted to many traditions of American music, including folk, country-blues, rock ’n’ roll, rockabilly, Celtic balladry along with jazz, swing, Broadway and Gospel. Wikipedia adds that his lyrics “incorporated politics, social commentary, philosophy and literary influences”. In “defying existing pop music conventions” it appealed “widely to the counterculture of the time”.
And I agree further with the view that “although his contributions as performer and recording artist have been central to his career, his songwriting is generally held as his highest accomplishment”. However, one might observe that without his performing, especially in the Sixties, and without those seminal albums, especially from the Sixties and Seventies, his songs would not have acquired the legendary status they have.
Before getting to his life’s story, it is worth noting that he has achieved numerous awards, including induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and being listed by Time Magazine as one of its 100 most influential people of the 20th century. In 2004, he was ranked No 2 in Rolling Stone magazine’s 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, second to, of course, The Beatles, though many Dylan fans would surely disagree. And, underscoring my own belief that his songs constitute some of the highest levels of modern English literature, Wikipedia says he has been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The cold climes of the US Great Lakes districts are what shaped the early Robert Zimmerman, who grew up in
Growing up just after the Second World War, Zionism was a rising force, and Wikipedia tells us that during his childhood, Dylan attended a Zionist summer camp in
Like so many other great musicians, an academic career was not going to happen, even though in September, 1959, he enrolled at the
And it was here, says Wikipedia, that he started introducing himself as Bob Dylan. It quotes from Chronicles where Dylan said he initially planned to use his first names, Robert Allen, which “sounded like a Scottish king and I liked it”. Fortunately, the world of Dylan admirers will agree, he discovered that there was already a saxophonist called David Allyn. At about the same time he got into the work of writer Dylan Thomas, and considered the name Robert Dylan, before finally deciding on simply Bob Dylan.
So there he was, at the age of just 18, taking on a stage name. He was born to be a performer. He quit the university at the end of his first year, what the Americans call his freshman year, and started “working the folk circuit”. This took him to
After playing in the smaller clubs for little pay – he refers to it in the song Talking
Wikipedia says by the time of his next record, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), he was becoming well known as a singer and songwriter. It cites Guthrie and Pete Seeger as key influences, with Seeger’s “passion for topical songs” possibly leading to
Wikipedia says “his most famous song of the time”, Blowin’ In The Wind, partially derived its melody from a traditional slave song, No More Auction Block. Its lyrics questioned the social and political status quo. But it took a folk-singing trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, to record it and make it a huge hit. Other artists would follow in their footsteps, recognising the beauty of Dylan’s melodies. The album included love songs and “jokey, frequently surreal talking blues”, says Wikipedia. It adds that humour formed a key part of his personality, and that the Beatles themselves were impressed by the album, with George Harrison saying they “just played it, just wore it out. The content of the song lyrics and just the attitude – it was incredibly original and wonderful”.
And so the Bob Dylan phenomenon was set in motion. And whether by accident or design, Dylan’s lyrics seemed to tap into the national psyche in the
The album transformed Dylan into “a dominant figure of the so-called ‘new folk movement’ headquartered in Lower Manhattan’s
It was, as I mentioned earlier, these cover versions of his songs that we first heard. Others who recorded his songs included The Byrds, Sonny and
Dylan and Baez got heavily involved in the civil rights movement, says Wikipedia, singing at such rallies as the March on
From the cosy cover of Bob and girlfriend walking through the snowy slush of a New York street, his next album, The Times They Are a-Changin’ has a bleak black-and-white photograph of him in an open-necked shirt. It does, says Wikipeida, reflect “a more sophisticated, politicised and cynical Dylan”. I’ll deal with the details of the album later.
Dylan’s disillusion with celebrity dates from early on, with Wikipedia noted that by the end of 1963, already, he felt “both manipulated and constrained by the folk-protest movement”. In a typically “heretical” outburst, upon receiving the Tom Paine Award from the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee shortly after John F Kennedy’s assassination, a “drunken, rambling Dylan questioned the role of the committee, insulted its members as old and balding, and claimed to see something of himself (and of every man) in assassin Lee Harvey Oswald”. And isn’t that part of the Dylan genius? He refused to be constrained, even by the supposed politically correct civil rights movement.
His reaction to being hailed as a political folk-singer emerged in his next album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, from 1964, which we did not have, though we knew many of the songs. Wikipedia says it had “a lighter mood than its predecessor”. I’ll deal with it in more depth later.
From folk to rock
From folk to rock
It was in 1964-65 that Dylan changed from folk singer to rock star. He changed his faded jeans for “a
And it was in the summer of 1965 that Dylan finally cut the apron strings of his folk music association, when he performed his first electric set since his high school days – at the oh-so-stuffy Newport Folk Festival, where he was the headline act. With Mike Bloomfied on guitar, Sam Lay on drums, Jerome Arnold on bass, Al Kooper on organ and Barry Goldberg on piano, this was an altogether different Dylan to the darling of 1963 and ’64. Even today, opinions are divided on what happened. Wikipedia says the “settled fact is that Dylan, met with a mix of cheering and booing, left the stage after only three songs”. The boos were apparently from outraged folk fans. But another account says fans were upset by the poor sound quality and “surprisingly short set”. However, whatever the reason, Wikipedia says he soon re-emerged to play “two much better received solo acoustic numbers”. Some even argue though, that his choice of It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue was deliberately selected as a “death knell for the kind of consciously sociopolitical, purely acoustic music that the cat-callers were demanding of him”. It seems the ramifications wouldn’t go away, with celebrated songwriter Ewan MacColl calling Dylan’s fare at the festical “tenth-rate drivel”. But four days later, on July 29, Dylan was back in the studio recording a song which seemed to refer to what had just happened. Positively
The album title, Highway 61 Revisited, from 1965, is a clue to its blues roots. And it contains one of his first mega-hits, Like A Rolling Stone, which, despite being over six minutes long, made it big in both the US and UK. In 2004, Rolling Stone listed it as number one on its list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. The best song ever. Well, maybe. Wikipedia says its “signature sound – with a full jangling band and an organ riff – characterised (the album)”. The road south from
As Dylan got into arguably the most creative period of his career, he next produced a double album that blew our minds for many years, Blonde on Blonde (1966). Wikipedia calls it a “mix of folk music, rock and roll and Dylan’s own brand of surrealism”, and says it is “often considered one of the finest recordings of American popular music”. A tour supporting the album, however, still got some stick at
Dylan’s private life was meant to be just that. That much is most evident in his book, Chronicles. Wikipedia says he married Sara Lownds on November 22, 1965. Jesse Byron Dylan was born on January 6, 1966 (a shotgun wedding?), with Anna Lea, Samuel Isaac Abraham and Jakob (December 9, 1969) to follow. He would battle to reconcile his stardom, with all its attendant intrusion on his privacy, with keeping his family life private. This, for me, was a key element of Chronicles. Jakob became lead singer of The Wallflowers, while Jesse is a film director and businessman.
Wikipedia says Dylan and the Hawks “met increasingly receptive audiences on tour”, but they failed somewhat in the studio. So producer Bob Johnston persuaded him to record in
And it seems Dylan was also perceptive enough to offer what his fans wanted. On a tour of
Under pressure to produce a book, Tarantula, and with a summer/autumn concert tour looming, on July 29, 1966, the brakes on Dylan’s Triumph 500 motorbike locked, throwing him to the ground. Wikipedia says the extent of his injuries were never fully disclosed, though it “was confirmed that he indeed broke his neck”. Dylan recovered, and decided he needed a change. Wikipedia quotes him as saying he “woke up and caught my senses – I realised that I was just workin’ for all these leeches. And I really didn’t want to do that”.
Upon his recovery, Dylan became instrumental in helping the Band achieve stardom. Still known as the Hawks, they worked with Dylan in the basement of their “Big Pink” studio in 1967. Wikipedia says they produced “renditions of many of Dylan’s favoured old and new songs and some newly written pieces”. These were used as demos and provided hit singles for the likes of Julie Driscoll, the Byrds and Manfred Mann. In 1975, selections were released as The Basement Tapes, which I to my discredit, never got to hear at the time. By now called The Band, the group recorded the album, Music from Big Pink, the first in a long and successful career.
Against the flow
One of Dylan’s most enigmatic albums, John Wesley Harding, was released in December 1967, his first since the crash. Wikipedia calls it “a quiet, contemplative record of shorter songs, set in a landscape which drew on both the American West and the Bible”. It marked, says Wikipedia, “a departure not only from Dylan’s own work, but from the escalating psychedelic fervour of the 1960s musical culture”. Once again, Dylan was going against the flow, setting himself apart. I’ll look more closely at the album later.
Despite the ongoing opposition from sections of his fan base, and his growing disillusionment with pop stardom, Dylan returned to the stage for two memorial concerts in January 1968, following the death of his hero, Woody Guthrie, on October 3, 1967.
But he was not going to return to his old musical style, and Nashville Skyline (1969) again goes against the flow. What Wikipedia calls “virtually a mainstream country record”, it featured backing by local
Was Dylan a Sixties phenomenon only? Self Portrait, his first album of the Seventies, with few original tracks (but as I explain later with considerable merit), was panned. However, New Morning, also from 1970, was far better received. George Harrison, free from the “shackles” of Beatledom, came into his own in the Seventies. And it was his Concert for
I’ve yet to see Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Sam Pekinpah’s 1972 film for which Dylan provided the songs and played the role of Alias, a minor member of Billy’s gang. It was a box office failure, but Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door was later covered by over 150 recording artists, says Wikipedia.
Dylan went into Asylum, the record label, when his Columbia Records contract expired in 1973, and recorded Planet Waves with The Band. I was not au fait with the album, though the song Forever Young (of which there are two versions on it) was obviously a major hit. Wikipedia says the phrase may have been lifted from John Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn – “For ever panting, and for ever young”. Seen by some as a “churlish response to Dylan’s signing with a rival record label”, says Wikipedia, Columbia Records released Dylan, a “haphazard collection of studio outtakes (almost exclusively cover songs)”. Small wonder we never got into it.
Another live double album we got into in a big way in the mid 1970s was Before the Flood, which was made from a 1974 tour Dylan did with The Band through
In the summer of 1975, Dylan wrote his “first successful ‘protest’ song in 12 years”, says Wikipedia. It was about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Released as an 8:28-minute single, it peaked in the Top 40 in the
Autumn 1975 also saw the Revue used as a backdrop for Dylan’s sprawling, nearly four-hour film, Renaldo and Clara. Comprising improvised narrative mixed with concert footage and reminiscences it was released in 1978, though I missed it completely. Wikipedia says it “received generally poor, sometimes scathing, reviews”. However, although Dylan later allowed it to be edited to two hours, mainly of concert footage, I’m sure the original would make for fascinating viewing today.
Then another great double album arrived, The Last Waltz, which we also got into in a big way. It was, says Wikipedia, a “farewell” concert for The Band, with Dylan appearing alongside the likes of Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison and Neil Young. Martin Scorsese’s “cinematic chronicle” of the show, by the same name, was highly acclaimed and included “about half of Dylan’s set”, says Wikipedia.
Dylan and Sara Lownds were finally divorced on June 29, 1977, says Wikipedia, through it adds that they remained in regular contact.
An album I only picked up in the 1980s, Street Legal, was released in 1978, and says Wikipedia it suffered from a poor sound mix which was only corrected with the CD release a quarter of a century later.
And then, almost echoing Cat Stevens’s conversion to Islam, in 1979, Dylan, the son of Jewish parents, became a born-again Christian. Apparently both his next two albums contained “exclusively religious material, “exploring his own version of Gospel music”. I knew about Slow Train Coming (1979), which won him a Grammy Award as Best Male Vocalist for Gotta Serve Somebody. But what of the other one? Well it was called Saved (1980), and as I was stuck in the military at the time, I missed it. But it was “not so well-received”, says Wikipedia.
One interesting upshot of his conversion cited by Wikipedia is that John Lennon, shortly before he was shot dead in December 1980, recorded Serve Yourself, in response to Dylan’s Gotta Serve Somebody. I’d love to hear the Lennon song. But Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner wrote that Slow Train contained the same intensity and passion as Dylan’s protest songs from the Sixties. Indeed, it was “probably the purest and truest Dylan ever”.
Though Dylan was firmly part of my life, given his early influence, by the early 1980s I personally had other musical fish to fry, not to mention the demands of military conscription, working for the opposition Progressive Federal Party as an organiser, and from August 1984, as a reporter on the Evening Post in
But it seems, according to Wikipedia, he sometimes left the best songs off his albums. Shot of Love, from 1981, contained his first secular compositions on an album in more than two years, though mixed with Christian songs. Every Grain Of Sand was acclaimed as recalling William Blake’s verse. Infidels, from 1983, was “well-regarded”, but Down in the Groove (1988) was panned, says Wikipedia. And it was in recording sessions for Infidels, says critic Michael Gray, that Blind Willie McTell was recorded, and omitted. It was, says Wikipedia, “both a tribute to the dead blues singer and an extraordinary evocation of African American history reaching back to the ‘ghosts of slavery ships’ ”. However, it and the likes of Foot Of Pride and Lord Protect My Child were released on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991. Also, we learn that an earlier version of Infidels was prepared by producer/guitarist Mark Knopfler (he of Dire Straits fame). It contained “different arrangements and song selections than what appeared on the final product”, says Wikipedia. I’d love to hear all these versions.
The Eighties was the decade for the really big stadium concerts for good causes, and Dylan formed part of them, appearing on USA for Africa’s famine relief single We Are The World, and at the Live Aid concert on July 13, 1985. Comments he made on stage about farmers needing help with their mortgages were slated, but later led to Farm Aid, launched by Willie Nelson.
And so did he get married again? Yeah. In June 1986, says Wikipedia, he married longtime backing singer Carolyn Dennis. They had a daughter, but divorced in October, 1992. It was in the early 1990s, while I was working in
But back in the 1980s he was still very active, starring in the odd film, none too successful, and then being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. It was in the spring of that year, however, that he teamed up with Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and George Harrison to produce the first Travelling Wilburys album, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Wikipedia called it “lighthearted, well-selling fare”, noting that the second album, from 1990, was completed by the other four after Orbison’s death.
I never heard Oh Mercy, from 1989, but Wikipedia says it received critical acclaim, and it seems, still has a strong Christian message in songs like Ring Them Bells.
Was Dylan running out of steam in the 1990s? Not a bit of it. Under the Red Sky was released in 1990, and included such luminaries as George Harrison, David Crosby and Elton John, but if flopped. He did not make another studio album of new songs for seven years. But that did not stop him doing two albums covering old folk and blues numbers, Good as I Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993). Both are surely well worth listening to. Lone Pilgrim, a 19th century song, is cited as being sung by Dylan with a “haunting reverence”. In 1995 he did a live show for MTV Unplugged. Later made into an album, it includes a version of his 1963 song, John Brown, which details the ravages of both war and jingoism, says Wikipedia.
Even a life-threatening disease in 1997 couldn’t keep him down, and on his recovery he performed before Pope John Paul II at the World Eucharistic Conference in
Then in September, 1997, he released the album, Time Out of Mind, which Wikipedia says was a “bitter assessment of love and morbid ruminations”. It achieved “unforeseen popularity among young listeners, particularly the opening song, Love Sick” and went on to win him his first solo Album of the Year Grammy. The Concert for
Still not tired, in 2000 he snapped up an Academy Award for best song for Things Have Changed, penned for a film, Wonder Boys. It also won him a Golden Globe award for best original song.
And it was on September 11, 2001 (of all days!) that Jack Frost finally emerged. This was his pseudonym as the producer of Love and Theft, which was released on the very day the
He even got in on the digital download act, with an eight-minute epic ballad, Cross The Green Mountain, forming the closing track to the film, Gods and Generals, and later included as one of 42 tracks on the iTunes Music Store release of Bob Dylan: The Collection.
I picked up cheaply a CD of the soundtrack of a film, Masked & Anonymous (2003), co-written by Dylan and Larry Charles. It includes a few tracks by Dylan, including a wonderful bluegrass song. The film, however, was panned by major critics, though some liked its “dark and mysterious vision of the
Then, of course, there was the film, I’m Not There: Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan, which I’m very keen to see, especially Cate Blanchett as one of seven actors in Dylan mode. Filming started in 2005.
I enjoyed Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home, which was released in September, 2005. It is arguably the definitive film biography of Dylan and has received several awards.
Ah, and I wondered about that song on the film North Country, which starred SA’s own Charlise Theron – pronounced Therron in the US, but Teronn in SA. Tell Ol’ Bill was recorded by Dylan in 2005. I had fully expected to hear his old classic, Girl From The North Country on the film.
Wikipedia says a Guardian critic described Dylan’s voice on Modern Times (released in August, 2006) as “a catarrhal death rattle”. But most critics were happy with it, especially Workingman’s Blues #2 and Ain’t Talking. I’m going to have to brace myself and listen to this album one day. After all, it did chart at No 1 in the
And still, by May, 2006, he wasn’t tired yet. So he started his career as a DJ, hosting a weekly radio programme, Theme Time Radio Hour for XM Satellite Radio. Here he has played many of the classic and obscure songs that have influenced his work down the decades. Critics have acclaimed the broadcasts, which are also run by the BBC. And still he wasn’t tired. Launching his Never Ending Tour would continue at the end of 2006. I think I missed out when it started, but it was probably back in the early Sixties!
Indeed, one wonders what it is with Dylan. Wikipedia says he played “roughly 100 dates a year for the entirety of the 1990s and the 2000s, a heavier schedule than most performers who started out in the 1960s”. It adds that he “refuses to be a nostalgic act”, always springing new surprises. And it seems he rarely plays guitar on stage anymore, preferring the electric keyboard and harmonica.
And it seems too that his fan base is relentless, with Wikipedia observing, for instance, that there is a website which “rigorously documents every song he has ever played in concert”. On another, visitors can “bet on what songs he will play on upcoming tours”. ISIS Magazine, founded in 1985, is the longest running publication about him.
I’ve alluded to the first part of his autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One, saying it is not chronological, but offers some fascinating insights into his life. Wikipedia says the book “once again confounded expectations”. It notes that he virtually ignored the mid-1960s “when his fame was at its height”. In a review of the book I wrote, I observed that we’ll probably have to await a later volume for the true story about the Dylan who impacted on our lives to such an extent. It was as if he was just underpainting, waiting to apply the final touches in the next instalment. The first volume, despite its shortcomings, reached No 1 on the New York Times hardcover non-fiction best seller list in December 2004, and was nominated for a National Book Award. Three volumes are planned.
So much then, for the Dylan story. But how did his music impact on our lives, back then in the Sixties and Seventies? As noted above, we did not get into Dylan’s albums chronologically. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was probably the first to achieve global recognition, what with Blowin’ In The Wind becoming so famous. But for the purposes of this little project, I’ll look at each in order. And I might just add that Wikipedia can surely not have done a more thorough and comprehensive study of any modern musician than it has done on Dylan. Why, I can imagine the man himself using it as a reference source when he finally writes the full story about the key years of his life. Each album is exhaustively unpacked, so – and this is my second attempt – let’s see how Dylan got that first recording contract and launched his career.
The first startling fact to strike one about his debut album, simply titled Bob Dylan and released by Columbia Records on March 19, 1962, is that it was recorded in just two days, on November 20 and 22, 1961, when was a mere 20 years old. How did that come about?
As we discovered earlier, Dylan had arrived in the Big Apple and was playing the club circuit. Anyway, Wikipedia tells us that on my fifth birthday (September 14, 1961, though he would probably not have known it), Dylan met
Next thing we know, Dylan has been signed – Wikipedia quotes Robert Shelton as saying
Twelve days later, on September 26, Dylan started a two-week turn as second act to The Greenbriar Boys at Gerdes Folk City, and it was here that the New York Times critic mentioned earlier heard him and wrote his “exceptionally favourable” review, as Wikipedia puts it. On that same day, we learn, Dylan played his harmonica at Hester’s recording session at
Two months later, in late November, studio time was scheduled for Dylan. And, while Dylan obviously had numerous songs in his repertoire, it seems he began earnestly searching for new material ahead of that date with destiny. His friend, Carla Rotolo, is quoted as saying he “spent most of his time listening to my records, days and nights”. He looked at the work of Ewan MacColl, Woody Guthrie and numerous others, including the great blues artists.
The actual recording process occurred in “two short afternoon sessions” on November 20 and 22, with
In those two session, 17 songs were recorded, with five of the final tracks cut in single takes, which somewhat gives the lie to
It seems already, at the tender age of 20, Dylan would be strongly assertive in the selection of what material would find its way onto his first album. This was a guy so self-assured he did not even have a single out and he was laying down the law. You’ve got to like it. Wikipedia says that after the recording sessions, Dylan continued to absorb “an enormous amount of folk material from sitting and listening to contemporaries performing in
For me, this was a fine, fine album. How mature would you expect a kid of 20 to sound? Here, armed with just an acoustic guitar, a harmonica and his incredible wit and drive, Dylan made not a mature album, but a timeless one. Already with Song For Woody and Talkin’ New York, he had produced two original songs which, alone, would have cast him as a great songwriter. Little was the world to know – or the small part of it that initially bought this album – that he would become arguably the most gifted and prolific songwriter of the 20th century, with quite a few more thrown in in the 21st for good measure.
Wikipedia, naturally, focuses on those two originals, noting that at the time Woody Guthrie was Dylan’s “main musical influence … indeed on several songs Dylan is apparently imitating Guthrie’s vocal mannerisms”. It quotes one Clinton Heylin as saying the original manuscript for Song For Woody has an inscription saying Dylan wrote it “in Mills Bar on
I have just given the debut album, Bob Dylan, another listen, and am more convinced than ever that it is one of his finest albums. The fact that he does mainly cover versions is in fact to his credit, because it reflects the extent of his long apprenticeship, as he immersed himself in the music of his people. I picked up my copy of this album at a Woolworth store in
Then, nothing daunted, his second song on his first album is, well, it’s his own composition, and if ever there was a song which augured well for the future of a songwriter, it must be Talkin’ New York, all 3:30 minutes of it. Acoustic guitar and harmonica lay down the melody, and before you know it you’re sucked into Dylan’s first talking blues song, his voice performing the task so naturally you’re left wondering whether he didn’t plan his career from about the time he learnt to talk. And the guitarwork is no juvenile, half-skilled effort, as so many have tried to dismiss it. Quite the contrary, the guitar becomes the perfect adjunct, unobtrusive but always interesting, as he talk-sings this autobiographical tale, which is packed with humour and self-deprecation. And finally I get to see the actual lyrics, courtesy of websites galore. I always misheard the opening word, so it is great to record that it is … “Ramblin’ outa the wild West, / Leavin’ the towns I love the best. / Thought I’d seen some ups and down, / ’Til I come into
So there was Dylan, playing superb bottle-neck guitar, making the strings whirr and whiz. Yes, track three, In My Time Of Dyin’, a traditional song arranged by Dylan, opens with some of the best acoustic guitarwork you’re likely to hear. And his vocals are again superb, his voice young and rich. This is what a young man of 20 was singing for his supper: “Well, in my time of dying don’t want nobody to mourn / All I want for you to do is take my body home / Well, well, well, so I can die easy / Well, well, well / Well, well, well, so I can die easy / Jesus gonna make up, Jesus gonna make up / Jesus gonna make up my dying bed.” How Dylan must have loved these following lines: “Well, meet me Jesus, meet me, meet me in the middle of the air / If these wings should fail me, Lord, won’t you meet me with another pair?” This, I must note, is the first time I’ve really registered those lines. The rest of the song is a repeat of verses and chorus, but what a great track that was.
And the next one, Man Of Constant Sorrow, was the ideal follow-up. A real sense of gravitas descends as he plays the opening bars on the guitar, especially those precisely struck bass notes, “da-da-dow”. Again, he has taken a traditional song and given it a new arrangement. It became one of our favourite early Dylan folk songs. Again, the harmonica is a vital part of the overall package, while his voice on words like “God’s golden shore” and “perhaps I’ll die on that train”, is syrupy smooth. And who said he couldn’t sing. He holds notes on this song which are so crisp and clear you’ll gasp. “I’m a man of constant sorrow, / I’ve seen trouble all my days. / I’ll say goodbye to
Somewhere, Dylan learnt to play blues guitar, and the use of a kind of hammered bass note is charactersitc of Fixin’ To Die, a Bukka White composition. There is a wonderful sense of urgency about the strumming that accompanies that sound, with the overall texture of guitar, harmonic and vocals being uniquely Dylan. Again, it is hard to believe a young man of just 20 could carry this off with such apparent ease. “Feeling funny in my mind, Lord, / I believe I’m fixing to die, fixing to die / Feeling funny in my mind, Lord
I believe I’m fixing to die / Well, I don’t mind dying / But I hate to leave my children crying / Well, I look over yonder to that burying ground / Look over yonder to that burying ground / Sure seems lonesome, Lord, when the sun goes down.” The song is sung with such passion, with such conviction, it is difficult to imagine just how immersed Dylan must have become in it. Indeed, that is surely the key to his success: total and absolute dedication to the task in hand. That conviction is at its fiercest as he sings the lines: “There’s a black smoke rising, Lord / It’s rising up above my head, up above my head / It’s rising up above my head, up above my head / And tell Jesus make up my dying bed.” He manages to get the guitar rasping and thumping in sympathy as he sings “up above me head”.
On Pretty Peggy-O, another Dylan-arranged traditional song, we experience again his love for the sound and shape of words. Here he plays with his Os. The guitar and harmonica opening provides backing to his opening spoken lines: “I’ve been around this whole country / But I never yet found Fenneario.” An attempt to find it on Google failed, with all references pointing to this song. Any way, the song is another classic: “Well, as we marched down, as we marched down / Well, as we marched down to Fennerio’ / Well, our captain fell in love with a lady like a dove / Her name that she had was Pretty Peggy-O.” This is a folk song in the old English tradition, though it’s clearly steeped in
There is more
Side 2 starts as impressively as Side 1, with the short, punchy Gospel Plow, another traditional song arranged by Dylan. Quick-fire guitar strumming, harmonica and powerful vocals make for another tour de force. Remember how it goes? “Mary wore three links of chain / Every link was Jesus name / Keep your hand on that plow, hold on / Oh Lord, Oh Lord, keep your hand on that plow, hold on.” Of course, it is indeed a gospel song, showing Dylan’s Christian affinities started early. “Mary, Mark, Luke and John / All these prophets so good and gone / Keep your hand on that plow, hold on / Oh Lord, Oh Lord, keep your hand on that plow, hold on.” Rarely can this song have been sung with such fervour, yet at the time we would never have associated it with anything so mundane as religion – although that is precisely what it was about. “Well, I never been to heaven / But I’ve been told streets up there / Are lined with gold / Keep your hand on that plow, hold on / Oh Lord, Oh Lord, keep your hand on that plow, hold on.”
And what a fine song isn’t Baby Let Me Follow You Down. Those dismissive of Dylan’s guitarwork take note, please. He keeps this complex melody remarkably light, as he initially tells the story of how he came by this song – and it is a bit of spoken Dylan which we treasured as youngsters. “First heard this from Ric von Schmidt. He lives in
And, as if that weren’t enough for a debut album, Dylan still had his version of House Of The Risin’ Sun, a traditional song arranged by his friend, Van Ronk. While The Animals may have made this a mega-hit as an early folk-rock song, it was Dylan, on this album, who really first popularised it in the modern era. Strangely, this and the final two tracks are for me perhaps the least impressive on the album. I found the effect of the plectrum on the strings somewhat obtrusive, while there is a sameness about this long song (5:20 minutes) which renders it a trifle boring. As I peruse the lyrics, I am reminded that this was another of those songs everyone who got hold of a guitar tried to play, myself included. So the words are pretty much universally known. Significantly, Dylan sings it from the perspective of a woman, a young prostitute. “There is a house down in New
Okay, so Freight Train Blues is still a great track – and it does include that lo-o-o-ng note. Another traditional song, arranged by Dylan, it is a combination of fast-paced harmonica and guitar which gets the old train rolling. This may be a blues song, but it is sung with a strong comic undercurrent, with “ha-ha-hees” at the end of lines. Also, because it passes so quickly, till now I’ve not really registered the lyrics, so here goes: “I was born in Dixie in a boomer shed / Just a little shanty by the railroad track / Freight train was it taught me how to cry / The holler of the driver was my lullaby / I got the freight train blues. / Oh Lord mama, I got them in the bottom of my rambling shoes / And when the whistle blows I gotta go baby, don’t you know / Well, it looks like I’m never gonna lose the freight train blues.” Of course Dylan handles this barrage of words with consummate ease. “Well, my daddy was a fireman and my mama-ha / She was the only daughter of an engineer / My sweetheart was a brakeman and it ain’t no joke / Seems a waste to get a good man broke / I got the freight train blues / Oh Lord mama, I got them in the bottom of my rambling shoes / And when the whistle blows I gotta go mama, don’t you know / Well, it looks like I’m never gonna lose the freight train blues.” So many great songs are about trains. Dylan would write one himself, It Takes A Lot To Laugh It Takes A Train To Cry. But on this song, the train brings laughter. “Well, the only thing that makes me laugh again / Is a southbound whistle on a southbound train / Every place I wanna go I never can go / Because you know I got the freight train blues / Oh Lord mama, I got them in the bottom of my rambling shoes.” Another of those classic American traditional songs that Dylan has immortalised.
Few debut albums can possibly include such a fine piece of songwriting as the penultimate track, Song To Woody, Dylan’s tribute to Woody Guthrie. I know this held us spellbound for many, many years. The guitar is played with a subdued gravitas befitting such an occasion. Woody was already ill in hospital, and Dylan had visited him many times. But this song is as much about Dylan and his future, as Woody and his past achievements. “I’m out here a thousand miles from my home, / Walkin’ a road other men have gone down. / I’m seein’ your world of people and things, / Your paupers and peasants and princes and kings.” Doesn’t that line have a wonderful ring to it, that bit of alliteration and the repeated use of “and”. “Hey, hey Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song / ’Bout a funny ol’ world that’s a-comin’ along. / Seems sick an’ it’s hungry, it’s tired an’ it’s torn, / It looks like it’s a-dyin’ an’ it’s hardly been born.” Again, another crackerjack couple of lines, as Dylan surveys a world which was beset by threats of nuclear war and racial oppression. But he remains appropriately humble in the presence of the master. “Hey, Woody Guthrie, but I know that you know / All the things that I’m a-sayin’ an’ a-many times more. / I’m a-singin’ you the song, but I can’t sing enough, / ’Cause there’s not many men that done the things that you’ve done.” He then pays tribute to Guthrie’s contemporaries. “Here’s to Cisco an’ Sonny an’ Leadbelly too, / An’ to all the good people that traveled with you. / Here’s to the hearts and the hands of the men / That come with the dust and are gone with the wind.” What precisely “coming with the dust” means is immaterial. It has a biblical ring to it, while of course “gone with the wind” has its own allusions. Then, having paid tribute, Dylan looks ahead: “I’m a-leaving’ tomorrow, but I could leave today, / Somewhere down the road someday. / The very last thing that I’d want to do / Is to say I've been hittin’ some hard travelin’ too.” Again, I’m note sure what is implied here, but perhaps it’s to say that whatever journey he takes, it will be as nothing compared to the path that Woody Guthrie pioneered. As I said, for a 20-year-old, for a poet of any age, this is a timeless classic, guaranteeing Dylan even then of his own place in the pantheon of the great poets.
The use of that “dumpf” effect on the bass string again is much to the fore on the final track of Bob Dylan. A complex blues guitar accompanies another crystal-clear vocal effort. “Well there’s one kind of favour I’ll ask of you / Well there’s one kind of favour I’ll ask of you / There’s just one kind of favour I’ll ask of you / You can see that my grave is kept clean.” It’s a Blind Lemon Jefferson song, and it contains the sort of concise, trenchant imagery which must have impacted on Dylan, underlining for him the vital importance of using words for their full effect. “And there’s two white horses following me / And there’s two white horses following me / I got two white horses following me / Waiting on my burying ground.” Again, Dylan immerses himself fully, even at his young age, in the ordeal and trauma which precipitated this song: “Did you ever hear that coffin sound / Did you ever hear that coffin sound / Did you ever hear that coffin sound / Means another poor boy is under the ground.” I’ve looked at several websites, and the word “coffin” is used throughout. While I accept it as a clever pun, I’m sure the word should be “coughin’ “, the sound of a dying person coughing his last gasps of air. Because here Dylan is singing about death – a rather bizarre note on which to end a debut album, but again underlining the fact that he would dictate matters throughout. So the next verse goes: “Did you ever hear them church bells toll / Did you ever hear them church bells toll / Did you ever hear them church bells toll / Means another poor boy is dead and gone.” Then the singer himself seems to succumb: “And my heart stopped beating and my hands turned cold / And my heart stopped beating and my hands turned cold / And my heart stopped beating and my hands turned cold / And I believe what the father told.”
Of course I’ve ignored, thus far, everything that Wikipedia has to tell us about these songs, so let’s see what we can learn about them. We’ve noted the inscription on Song To Woody and its possibly being based on Guthrie’s 1913 Massacre.
What is most interesting is a section on the “outtakes”, the four songs recorded for the album, but not included. Three, it seems, are on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991. These are House Carpenter, He Was A Friend Of Mine and Man On The Street, a Dylan original. His version of Guthrie’s Ramblin’ Blues has, says Wikipedia, not yet been released.
And according to Clinton Heylin, his rendition of House Carpenter, a 16th century Scottish ballad originally called The Daemon Lover, was “the most extraordinary performance of the sessions, as demonically driven as anything Robert Johnson put out in his time”. And there was also an electric version of House Of The Rising Sun, “heavily overdubbed with electric instruments in 1964”, in a bid, not doubt, to outdo The Animals. This is on the Highway 61 Interactive CD-ROM.
Discussing the impact the album had, Wikipedia observes that it only received acclaim “many years later”. Critic Tim Riley is quoted as saying that Dylan’s voice on the album “is its most striking feature, a determined, iconoclastic baying that chews up influences and spits out the odd mixed signal without half trying”. With just 2 500 copies selling in the
Yet at the time Dylan was brimful of songs and ideas, and a month after recording Bob Dylan, on December 22, 1961, he was in
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
Fifty minutes of pure genius. It was Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which – thanks largely to the epochal Blowin’ In The Wind – would etch its creator’s name indelibly in the annals of modern popular music. And we were fortunate to be out there, at a receptive age, to lap it up.
Released by Columbia Records in 1963, Wikipedia says the album is “still frequently cited as one of his best” and “established Dylan as a songwriter of premier importance”. With just two covers, Corrina, Corrina and Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance, Dylan showed the time for hiding his talents was over. Folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary earlier that year had introduced Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind, which Wikipedia not surprisingly calls “one of Dylan’s most famous songs”. In it he asks nine questions about freedom, war, life and death, and replies in each case that the answer is “blowin’ in the wind”, which in itself is hardly a profound reply, unless you interpret that wind as being a wind of change, which is really what Dylan’s premise seemed to be. Before looking at how the album was made and giving the songs a fresh listen, it is significant to note that the album reached No 22 in the
Producer John Hammond was intent on ensuring that Dylan’s next album did enough to justify his original confidence in him, after the debut album sold only about 5 000 copies in the first year. Work on the second album started in
The next day he did a master take of Let Me Die In My Footsteps, plus more originals: Rocks And Gravel, Talking Hava Negiliah Blues and Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues. The last two, which obviously never made the album, are on The Bootleg Series. After a break, recording resumed on July 9, by which time Albert Grossman had “pushed himself into Dylan’s business affairs”, says Wikipedia. He aimed to profit by publishing Dylan’s songs. It was on this day that he recorded Blowin’ In The Wind, which already had a following after it had been performed live. He also recorded Bob Dylan’s Blues, Down The Highway and Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance, all of which were included on the album. Baby, I’m In The Mood For You, another Dylan original, did not make the album, but was included in the 1985 Biograph.
As he had done after recording the first album, in early August Dylan returned to
But, disappointed though he was, that autumn he performed in several live shows in
Wikipedia covers every facet of the recording process, noting that Dylan resumed work in the recording studio on October 26. He did takes of Mixed-Up Confusion, Arthur Crudup’s That’s All Right Mama, both considered unusable. However, he did a master take of Corrina, Corrina which was selected for the album. A separate version would be released later as a single that year. Remember, we are still way back in 1962. And so the recording sessions continued on November 1, with a master take of Rocks And Gravel selected for the album. The confusion over Mixed-Up Confusion – which I have never heard – continued.
And so the minutiae of the recording process continued, with Ballad Of Hollis Brown,
Consider that for that first album he had taken just two days in the studio. Now the process was dragging on and on. On December 6, however, things started coming right, when he recorded five songs, all original, with three eventually included on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. These, says Wikipedia, were A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,
Dylan then headed for
In fact, says Wikipedia, Dylan had decided to pull four songs off the album, saying he wanted “more finger-pointin’ songs” on it. He replaced John Birch, Let Me Die In My Footsteps, Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie and Rocks And Gravel. He wanted to use the stuff he had written while abroad. But John Hammond would not be the man producing these songs. Clearly, they’d both had enough of each other, with Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman confirming later that the animosity between them “never abated”. Fittingly, it was an African-American, Tom Wilson, who took over the task. With a background in jazz recording, he was initially reluctant. He later said at the time he “didn’t even particularly like folk music”. He thought folk was “for the dumb guys. (Dylan) played like the dumb guys, but then these words came out. I was flabbergasted.” Clearly the chemistry worked, because on April 24, 1963, Dylan cut five of his newest compositions: Girl From The North Country, Masters Of War, Talking World War III Blues, Bob Dylan’s Dream and Walls Of Red Wing, with the last only being released on The Bootleg Series. As history will record, the other four went onto the album and have become living legends.
Wikipedia quotes Van Morrison as saying that after hearing the album, he realised Dylan was getting away with “not singing about ‘moon in June’ … and I thought this kind of opens the whole thing up … Dylan put it into the manstream that this could be done”.
Because Blowin’ In The Wind is among his most famous compositions, it is easy to overlook it’s many merits. As noted earlier, the melody is based on No More Auction Block (Many Thousands Gone), an American folk song dating as far back as 1867. Indeed, Dylan had performed the traditional song live, with a version from the Gaslight Café on The Bootleg Series. While the song “made a strong impression on the civil rights movement of the 1960s”, Wikipedia says this had less to do with its musical roots than with its lyrics. Many African-American artists, including Stevie Wonder and Sam Cooke, saw it as “a clear expression of the civil rights movement”. Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come, a popular civil rights anthem, is said to have been inspired by the Dylan song.
Wikipedia says the song “quickly became a commercial hit as well as a media sensation, but Dylan was reluctant to embrace all the attention”. He did not want to limit his image to that of a protest singer. Indeed, Wikipedia notes that at Gerde’s
So let’s see what all the fuss was about. Having just given The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan a fresh listen, I was struck by the progress made since that debut album. And it has all to do with the fact he is singing his own songs, and on this epochal opening track especially, has pared down the guitar to the bare minimum, thereby placing maximum emphasis on the lyrics. I had a sweeping sense of nostalgia when I heard Blowin’ In The Wind again, as if I had been transported back in time to my youth. Only music can do that, and it takes a song like this to make one realise just how much of an impact Dylan had. With crisp bursts of harmonica between verses and his vocals clear, almost Donovan-like, this was Dylan at his folk-singing best. The song is simplicity itself, which was vital if he was to get that message across. This, no matter what Dylan might say, was protest music at its finest: “How many roads must a man walk down / Before you call him a man? / Yes, ’n’ how many seas must a white dove sail / Before she sleeps in the sand? / Yes, ’n’ how many times must the cannon balls fly / Before they’re forever banned? / The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, / The answer is blowin’ in the wind.” It was an anthem for the youth, angry at the world their parents had bequeathed them. “How many times must a man look up / Before he can see the sky? / Yes, ’n’ how many ears must one man have / Before he can hear people cry? / Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows / That too many people have died? / The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, / The answer is blowin’ in the wind.” He’s telling people to open their eyes and ears and not to be duped by what those with political agendas are trying to sell them. Again, I must ask the question: where is the modern-day equivalent of Dylan? There are more than enough issues to get angry about. “How many years can a mountain exist / Before it’s washed to the sea? / Yes, ’n’ how many years can some people exist / Before they’re allowed to be free? / Yes, ’n’ how many times can a man turn his head, / Pretending he just doesn’t see? / The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, / The answer is blowin’ in the wind.” Of course in apartheid
But like all great Dylan albums, indeed all great albums period, the tracks are nicely mixed up, with the protest song being followed by a beautiful love song, Girl From The North Country. Wikipedia quotes NPR’s Tim Riley as describing the song as an “absence-makes-the-heart-grow-confused song, but it’s suffused with a rueful itch, as though Dylan is singing about someone he may ever see again”. Using a more complex chord arrangement, he goes straight into those beautiful lyrics. Dylan’s voice was an acquired taste, but once acquired it has an almost hypnotic effect on one, with adroit use of the harmonica adding that extra dimension. “Well, if you’re travelin’ in the north country fair, / Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline, / Remember me to one who lives there. / She once was a true love of mine.” His juxtaposition of descriptions of cold, inclement weather and the warmth of his affections for this girl make an interesting contrast. “Well, if you go when the snowflakes storm, / When the rivers freeze and summer ends, / Please see if she’s wearing a coat so warm, / To keep her from the howlin’ winds.” I always enjoyed his love of language in the description of her hair: “Please see for me if her hair hangs long, / If it rolls and flows all down her breast. / Please see for me if her hair hangs long, / That’s the way I remember her best.” But the seeds of doubt are there: “I’m a-wonderin’ if she remembers me at all. / Many times I’ve often prayed / In the darkness of my night, / In the brightness of my day.” He repeats the opening verse, an almost vain request that he be at least mentioned to a girl who “once was a true love of mine”.
If Blown’ In The Wind was a protest song, then Masters Of War was the trial and execution of those who had screwed up the world for the rest of us. Wikipedia says it is “a scathing, anti-war protest song … based on Jean Ritchie’s arrangement of
Dylan’s guitar-work rarely gets better than on Down The Highway, a gentle, very unorthodox folk-blues song. He achieves a wonderfully intimate aural texture here, his vocals making him sound a lot older than his years. This is an interestingly autobiographical song, full of self-deprecating humour. “Well, I’m walkin’ down the highway / With my suitcase in my hand. / Yes, I’m walkin’ down the highway / With my suitcase in my hand. / Lord, I really miss my baby, / She’s in some far-off land.” This was clearly written about his longing for Suze Rotolo, who had gone to study art in
On Bob Dylan’s Blues, he again introduces the song against a strummed guitar background. “Unlike most of the songs nowadays being written uptown in Tin Pan Alley – that’s where most of the folk songs come from nowadays. This, this is a song . . . this wasn’t written up there. This was written somewhere down in the
But those two songs, not even discussed on the normally exhaustively comprehensive Wikipedia, are dwarfed in terms of impact by A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, which ranks up there with Dylan’s most powerful songs, even though at 6.55 minutes it is a long, rambling and, were it not for those lyrics, almost boring effort. Wikipedia notes that Dylan was just 21 when he wrote the song, “one of his most complex and evocative compositions”. It is this song that he adapted to the verse pattern and melody of the English folk ballad, Lord Randall. Wikipedia quotes performer Peter Blankfield as saying he was at the Gaslight Café when the song was first played. He said people were left dumbstruck. “The length of it, the episodic sense of it. Every line kept building and bursting.” While some have seen “hard rain” as a reference to nuclear fallout, Wikipedia says Dylan has “adamantly resisted the political connotations of his apocalyptic imagery”. Rather, he saw it as “some sort of end that’s just got to happen”. However, Wikipedia says in 1965 he conceded that it was written at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. “It was a song of desperation. What could we do? Could we control men on the verge of wiping us out? The words came fast, very fast. It was a song of terror. Line after line after line, trying to capture the feeling of nothingness.” Biographer Heylin, says Wikipedia, saw it as suggesting “that such a talent was never going to be contained by something as self-referential and exclusive as the folk revival”. So what was the fuss all about? The song starts with some sombre strumming. As I listened to it again, I realised what a privilege it had been to be part of the generation who grew up with this stuff. It is engrained in our psyches. But, phew!, the imagery is rough. This is nightmarish stuff. It starts off innocuously enough, as a father (as fathers tend to do) asks his son where he has been. He might, in fact, have been asking where he was going, because this is a song about impending doom. “Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son? / Oh, where have you been, my darling young one? / I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains, / I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways, / I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests, / I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans, / I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard, / And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, / And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.” It is a bleak picture, seen by myself fully only know, for the first time, the words having not previously been completely clear, though their import viscerally felt. “Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son? / Oh, what did you see, my darling young one? / I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it / I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it, / I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’, / I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’, / I saw a white ladder all covered with water, / I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken, / I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children, / And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, / And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.” It truly is an apocalyptic vision, akin in a way to the paintings of the 15th century Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch. “And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son? / And what did you hear, my darling young one? / I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’, / Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world, / Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’, / Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’, / Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’, / Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter, / Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley, / And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, / And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.” They say that out of the mouths of babes… Here it takes a child to spell out the truth about a sinful, broken world. And that was long before the impact of global warming was fully understood. The key fact here seems to be a failure to communicate. People talking but nobody listening. “Oh, who did you meet, my blue-eyed son? / Who did you meet, my darling young one? / I met a young child beside a dead pony, / I met a white man who walked a black dog, / I met a young woman whose body was burning, / I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow, / I met one man who was wounded in love, / I met another man who was wounded with hatred, / And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, / It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.” And life was hard when, as Dylan knew from personal experience, you could be wounded by both hatred and love. “Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son? / Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one? / I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’, / I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest, / Where the people are many and their hands are all empty, / Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters, / Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison, / Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden, / Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten, / Where black is the color, where none is the number, / And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it, / And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it, / Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’, / But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’, / And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, / It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.” Funny. For years I thought he was making a racial reference in the line, “where black is the colour, where none is the number”. But in fact it is a chilling metaphor for the “nothingness” he spoke of. Black is the absence of colour. None is the absence of numbers.
Appropriately, this dark work is followed by something far more upbeat. On Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right, the guitar is almost jovially picked, sounding out a gentle melody which is enhanced by some bluesy harmonica. Wikipedia says it too was written “around the same time Suze Rotolo postponed her stay in
As I grew older, Bob Dylan’s Dream was a bit like Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. It was a capsule in time, a still-frame image of those carefree days of childhood and teenage years when friendships blossom and life seems to stretch out ahead of you into infinity. Wikipedia says the song was influenced by the traditional Lady Franklin’s Lament. One critic quoted by the website saw the song as a metaphor for what would become of Sixties idealism, and the “awareness that youth’s immediacy can’t last”. And that is the crux of the matter, really. It’s hard to look to the future when you’re young, especially when you’re having a good time. You don’t want those days to end. But Bob Dylan’s Dream shows how easily that myth is shattered. “While riding on a train goin’ west, / I fell asleep for to take my rest. / I dreamed a dream that made me sad, / Concerning myself and the first few friends I had.” Substitute the words, “Concerning Lord Franklin, and his gallant crew”, and you can see the origins of this melody. “With half-damp eyes I stared to the room / Where my friends and I spent many an afternoon, / Where we together weathered many a storm, / Laughin’ and singin’ till the early hours of the morn.” It was an idyllic time: “By the old wooden stove where our hats was hung, / Our words was told, our songs was sung, / Where we longed for nothin’ and were quite satisfied / Talkin’ and a-jokin’ about the world outside.” How many youngsters today would confess to being “quite satisfied”. They always seem to need something more, usually some or other costly techno widget. “With haunted hearts through the heat and cold, / We never thought we could ever get old. / We thought we could sit forever in fun / But our chances really was a million to one.” They knew good from evil, but failed to see other truths: “As easy it was to tell black from white, / It was all that easy to tell wrong from right. / And our choices were few and the thought never hit / That the one road we travelled would ever shatter and split.” Then he reminisces: “How many a year has passed and gone, / And many a gamble has been lost and won, / And many a road taken by many a friend, / And each one I’ve never seen again.” Nostalgia sweeps over him: “I wish, I wish, I wish in vain, / That we could sit simply in that room again. / Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat, / I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that.” Gone mate. Only the memories remain. And they tend to gloss over the bad times, which is a good thing. I long for the freedom to ramble over
From introspection, Dylan again looks around him, and in
This album is all of 50 minutes long, way longer than most LPs, and it is packed with great, timeless classics. And few can compete with Talkin’ World War III Blues, which runs for 6:28 minutes. The song, says Wikipedia, was “a spontaneous composition created during Dylan’s final session” for the album. Aside from the virtuoso lyrics, Dylan’s harmonica works some real magic here between the many verses. One concern I have is that there are errors of logic in the song. While he tells the psychiatrist that he’s the only person left after what one assumes was a short nuclear war, he mentions several others in the course of the tale. Also, if it was a nuclear war, what about the fallout? Still, the song is a load of, well, sardonic, fun. “Some time ago a crazy dream came to me, / I dreamt I was walkin’ into World War Three, / I went to the doctor the very next day / To see what kinda words he could say. / He said it was a bad dream. / I wouldn’t worry ’bout it none, though, / They were my own dreams and they’re only in my head.” Now that is odd, because all I used to hear here was “them dreams is only in your head”. But it seems I missed a lot, because I never fully got the next line either: “I said, ‘Hold it, Doc, a World War passed through my brain.’ / He said, ‘Nurse, get your pad, this boy’s insane,’ / He grabbed my arm, I said ‘Ouch!’ / As I landed on the psychiatric couch, / He said, ‘Tell me about it.’” Then he tells the story of this 15-minute war and its aftermath: “Well, the whole thing started at 3 o’clock fast, / It was all over by quarter past. / I was down in the sewer with some little lover / When I peeked out from a manhole cover / Wondering who turned the lights on.” This seems to suggest a sudden blast, or nuclear explosion. “Well, I got up and walked around / And up and down the lonesome town. / I stood a-wondering which way to go, / I lit a cigarette on a parking meter / And walked on down the road. It was a normal day.” What, though, became of his lover? “Well, I rung the fallout shelter bell / And I leaned my head and I gave a yell, / ‘Give me a string bean, I’m a hungry man.’ / A shotgun fired and away I ran. / I don’t blame them too much though, / I know I look funny.” So there’s no fallout and no food, but there are others about. “Down at the corner by a hot-dog stand / I seen a man, I said, ‘Howdy friend, / I guess there’s just us two.’ / He screamed a bit and away he flew. / Thought I was a Communist.” That’s a delightful touch. Even after the apocalypse, the fear of the Reds is overwhelming. “Well, I spied a girl and before she could leave, / Said ‘Let’s go and play Adam and Eve.’ / I took her by the hand and my heart it was thumpin’ / When she said, ‘Hey man, you crazy or sumpin’, / You see what happened last time they started.’” Hey, we loved that line, back then. “Well, I seen a Cadillac window uptown / And there was nobody aroun’, / I got into the driver’s seat / And I drove
From the ludicrous to the sublime. As noted earlier, Dylan did numerous takes of the traditional song, Corrina, Corrina, one of just two on the album he did not write. This is a radical departure from the folk songs which constitute the rest of Freewheelin’, because here we get a foretaste of the jazz-folk-rock sound which would characterise the great albums of the mid-1960s. Here is subtle jazzy electric guitar, alongside electric bass and even drums, with the harmonica and vocals giving it a wonderfully well-rounded sound. “Corrina, Corrina, / Gal, where you been so long? / Corrina, Corrina, / Gal, where you been so long? / I been worr’in’ ’bout you, baby, / Baby, please come home.” Sentiments about love lost, which drive so many blues songs, are again the golden thread. “I got a bird that whistles, / I got a bird that sings. / I got a bird that whistles, / I got a bird that sings./ But I ain’ a-got Corrina, / Life don’t mean a thing.” He is distraught: “Corrina, Corrina, / Gal, you’re on my mind. / Corrina, Corrina, / Gal, you’re on my mind. / I’m a-thinkin’ ’bout you, baby, / I just can’t keep from crying.”
No, the album is far from over. A quicker-strummed track, with the same brilliant harmonica sets the scene for Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance. This is another of those whimsical Dylan songs which would become such a part of his armoury in years to come. Wikipedia tells us the song is based on Honey, Won’t You Allow Me One More Chance, a song dating back to the 1890s, which Henry Thomas recorded in1928. Heylin confirms that Dylan wrote the lyrics for a “vocal tour de force” in which he was able to “make light of his own blues by using the form itself”. “Honey, just allow me one more chance / To get along with you. / Honey, just allow me one more chance, / Ah’ll do anything with you. / Well, I’m a-walkin’ down the road / With my head in my hand, / I’m lookin’ for a woman / Needs a worried man. / Just-a one kind favor I ask you, / ’Low me just-a one more chance.” This is the only time on the album he really lets his voice have fun with the lyrics, including a few whee-hahs for good measure. “Honey, just allow me one more chance / To ride your aeroplane. / Honey, just allow me one more chance / To ride your passenger train. / Well, I’ve been lookin’ all over / For a gal like you, / I can’t find nobody / So you’ll have to do. / Just-a one kind favor I ask you, / ’Low me just-a one more chance.” He seems really deperate: “Honey, just allow me one more chance / To get along with you. / Honey, just allow me one more chance, / Ah’ll do anything with you. / Well, lookin’ for a woman / That ain’t got no man, / Is just lookin’ for a needle / That is lost in the sand. / Just-a one kind favor I ask you, / ’Low me just-a one more chance.”
You don’t end an album like this with a whimper. Instead, you proclaim: I Shall Be Free, even when the song title seems to have little bearing on the lyrics. Again, it is that guitar/harmonica combination which launch this humourous take on
Shortly before releasing the album, Dylan – whose debut remember had petty much bombed – managed to three-quarters fill the New York Town Hall’s 900 seats. While only two songs from Freewheelin’ were played, the concert received good reviews, boosting Dylan’s profile. And his decision not to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show, as noted earlier, because they would not let him play Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues, also “helped create Dylan’s image as a counterculture hero”, says Wikipedia.
He cemented earlier meetings with Joan Baez at the Monterey Folk Festival while promoting his upcoming album. They played With God On Our Side together, though it would only be recorded for his next album. This endorsement from the Queen of Folk didn’t harm his career, and it also “catalyzed a romantic relationship”, says Wikipeidia, with a
Despite all this publicity and Dylan’s higher profile, his new album, available since late May that year, “did not attract many reviews from the mainstream press”, says Wikipedia. Selling modestly at first, the abovementioned exposure helped spread the word and sales picked up. Suddenly Dylan started to experience the sort of unwelcome attention from fans he so resented. By September, the album had entered the Billboard album charts, while his involvement in the civil rights movement over the next few months went on to “cement his status as a cultural icon”, says Wikipedia.
The Times They Are A-Changin’
The black-and-white deep-etched photograph of a young, scrawny Dylan in workingman’s shirt on the cover of his third album, The Times They Are A-Changin’ (released in 1964), is indicative of where he was placing himself politically. This is a concerned young man who will lead a youth protest movement against war and racism through the medium of folk music, even if at the same time he eschews that leadership.
The black-and-white deep-etched photograph of a young, scrawny Dylan in workingman’s shirt on the cover of his third album, The Times They Are A-Changin’ (released in 1964), is indicative of where he was placing himself politically. This is a concerned young man who will lead a youth protest movement against war and racism through the medium of folk music, even if at the same time he eschews that leadership.
With Tom Wilson now producing, this is Dylan’s first album comprising only his own compositions – and these, says Wikipedia, are mostly “stark, sparsely arranged story songs concerning issues such as racism, poverty, and social change”. Personally, for this reason, I do find this to be one of his least enjoyable albums. It is a bit too lecturing. But that is in retrospect. At the time, or course, this was the work of a modern-day prophet. And the title track was his manifesto. Wikipedia says it is one of his most famous songs; “many felt it captured the spirit of social and political upheaval that characterised the 1960s”. However, I endorse the view that some fans “were not quite as taken with the album as a whole … for its lack of humour or musicial diversity”. Yet it became Dylan’s first instant hit, entering the
Having just given this album a fresh listen, I am struck not by its sparseness, but by the chutzpah it must have taken to make an LP that so clearly does not pander to the market. At a time when Peter Paul and Mary were enjoying fame with one of Dylan’s song, sung suitably joyously, Dylan himself opts for a low-key, almost introspective style. And it is a masterpiece of understatement.
The album, at 45:36 minutes, is another bang-for-your-bucks offering. It also happens to contain 10 of Dylan’s most iconic songs. These were the original versions. Many others have done covers of these songs, but this album shows how Dylan intended them to be. I got the same feeling of déjà vu when I listened to the opening track, The Times They Are a-Changin’, as I did listening to Blowin’ In The Wind. These songs are part of one’s psyche. That simple, strummed acoustic guitar, then those immortal first words: “Come gather ’round people / Wherever you roam / And admit that the waters / Around you have grown / And accept it that soon / You’ll be drenched to the bone. / If your time to you / Is worth savin’ / Then you better start swimmin’ / Or you'll sink like a stone / For the times they are a-changin’.” How great it is to see these words written down. This opening stanza is about ineluctable change, a sea-change, a flood of transformation that cannot be halted. You either sink or swim. “Come writers and critics / Who prophesize with your pen / And keep your eyes wide / The chance won’t come again / And don’t speak too soon / For the wheel’s still in spin / And there’s no tellin’ who / That it’s namin'. / For the loser now / Will be later to win / For the times they are a-changin’.” Consider that Dylan was about 23 when he wrote these words, yet they have the wisdom of a man three times that age, with a wealth of experience. Here he seems to warn about making false assumptions before the situation has unfolded sufficiently to justify them. And, as if taking the biblical dictum that the first will be last and the meek shall inherit the earth, he warns that the loser now will later win. And it happens. Black South Africans now rule this country. A black man, Barack Obama, as I speak is a possible next
Wikipedia quotes Dylan (in 1964) as disputing the general interpretation that the song reflects the generation gap and political divide in US culture in the 1960s. Dylan said: “Those were the only words I could find to separate aliveness from deadness. It had nothing to do with age.” The next year he said he didn’t mean the song as a statement… “It’s a feeling.” The ease with which Dylan downplayed the significance of his own songs is revealed in the fact that three years after its release, he allowed the song to be used by a Canadian merchant bank in its advertising campaign. What a sacrilege!
The same muted, understated guitarwork marks Ballad Of Hollis Brown, a five-minute story about a life that goes tragically awry. Who but Dylan would write a song for his third album about a family suicide/murder – and get away with it? The tension in this song is as taut as the guitar strings on which it is plucked. “Hollis Brown / He lived on the outside of town / Hollis Brown / He lived on the outside of town / With his wife and five children / And his cabin fallin’ down.” It’s a struggle for survival. “You looked for work and money / And you walked a rugged mile / You looked for work and money / And you walked a rugged mile / Your children are so hungry / That they don’t know how to smile.” You get a sense that Dylan felt real compassion for the poor. “Your baby’s eyes look crazy / They’re a-tuggin’ at your sleeve / Your baby’s eyes look crazy / They’re a-tuggin' at your sleeve / You walk the floor and wonder why / With every breath you breathe.” The situation deteriorates rapidly. “The rats have got your flour / Bad blood it got your mare / The rats have got your flour / Bad blood it got your mare / Is there’s anyone that knows / Is there anyone that cares?” As his babies cry louder, “Your wife’s screams are stabbin’ you / Like the dirty drivin’ rain”. In the end he spends his “last lone dollar / On seven shotgun shells”. His eyes “fix on the shotgun” that first is “hangin’ on the wall”, then it’s in his hand. Then the final decision to end it: “There's seven breezes a-blowin’ / All around the cabin door / There’s seven breezes a-blowin’ / All around the cabin door / Seven shots ring out / Like the ocean’s pounding roar.” But Dylan is fatalistic about this tragedy: “There’s seven people dead / On a South Dakota farm / There’s seven people dead / On a South Dakota farm / Somewhere in the distance / There’s seven new people born.” Biographer Clinton Heylin is quoted by Wikipedia as saying it is a “tragic tale of independence and free will, culled from the folk idiom” and a “grim, rural Gothic story of a father killing his starving family”. Bleak indeed.
The next track, With God On Our Side, really resonated with us in apartheid
The next track is appropriately upbeat and, well, simple beautiful. One Too Many Mornings was on a seven-single I borrowed from my biology teacher in high school at Clifton Park High in
No harmonica interposes to break the sombre atmosphere of North Country Blues, where Dylan tells his song against slowly strummed strings. This beautifully maudlin song has all the qualities of a traditional folk song. “Come gather ’round friends / And I’ll tell you a tale / Of when the red iron pits ran plenty. / But the cardboard filled windows / And old men on the benches / Tell you now that the whole town is empty.” That’s great scene-setting. “In the north end of town, / My own children are grown / But I was raised on the other. / In the wee hours of youth, / My mother took sick / And I was brought up by my brother.” At this point you think it’s the story of a young boy, but it’s not. “The iron ore poured / As the years passed the door, / The drag lines an’ the shovels they was a-humming. / ’Til one day my brother / Failed to come home / The same as my father before him.” Still no hint that Dylan is singing about a young girl. “Well a long winter’s wait, / From the window I watched. / My friends they couldn’t have been kinder. / And my schooling was cut / As I quit in the spring / To marry John Thomas, a miner.” Finally, it’s out. Like so many old British folk ballads, this is a woman’s story of woe. “Oh the years passed again / And the givin’ was good, / With the lunch bucket filled every season. / What with three babies born, / The work was cut down / To a half a day’s shift with no reason.” And then the age-old conflict between miners and bosses. “Then the shaft was soon shut / And more work was cut, / And the fire in the air, it felt frozen. / ’Til a man come to speak / And he said in one week / That number eleven was closin’.” Another mining town under threat. “They complained in the East, / They are paying too high. / They say that your ore ain’t worth digging. / That it’s much cheaper down / In the South American towns / Where the miners work almost for nothing.” Dylan grew up in mining country, so obviously had intimate knowledge of these conflicts. “So the mining gates locked / And the red iron rotted / And the room smelled heavy from drinking. / Where the sad, silent song / Made the hour twice as long / As I waited for the sun to go sinking.” Is another suicide in the offing? “I lived by the window / As he talked to himself, / This silence of tongues it was building. / Then one morning’s wake, / The bed it was bare, / And I’s left alone with three children.” She faces a bleak future: “The summer is gone, / The ground’s turning cold, / The stores one by one they’re a-foldin’. / My children will go / As soon as they grow. / Well, there ain’t nothing here now to hold them.” Wikipedia tells us this is the first time Dylan wrote a song exclusively from a woman’s perspective.
Dylan knew about Behan’s Patriot Game, and it seems likely was inspired by it to use the same word in Only A Pawn In Their Game. Only here it is not patriotism that is used to exploit people, but racism. Again, growing up in
Because everything goes in cycles, this sad tale is followed by the love song, Boots Of Spanish Leather, which has become one of Dylan’s most covered songs, with one version by The Dubliners being particularly memorable. The guitar is still understated on this melodic ballad: “Oh, I’m sailin’ away my own true love, / I’m sailin’ away in the morning. / Is there something I can send you from across the sea, / From the place that I’ll be landing?” This is clearly written about a time long ago, when travel across oceans meant sailing ships and possibly years of separation. He replies: “No, there’s nothin’ you can send me, my own true love, / There’s nothin’ I wish to be ownin’. / Just carry yourself back to me unspoiled, / From across that lonesome ocean.” If the tune wasn’t borrowed from an old Anglo-Irish folk song, then this will go down as such a traditional song in future: “Oh, but I just thought you might want something fine / Made of silver or of golden, / Either from the mountains of Madrid / Or from the coast of Barcelona.” It’s a lovely song of yearning, even before she’s left: “Oh, but if I had the stars from the darkest night / And the diamonds from the deepest ocean, / I’d forsake them all for your sweet kiss, / For that’s all I’m wishin’ to be ownin’.” But she’s insistent: “That I might be gone a long time / And it’s only that I’m askin’, / Is there something I can send you to remember me by, / To make your time more easy passin’.” He starts to get angry: “Oh, how can, how can you ask me again, / It only brings me sorrow. / The same thing I want from you today, / I would want again tomorrow.” I hope I’ve interpreted this correctly, because this next verse suggest clearly it is the woman who left the man behind: “I got a letter on a lonesome day, / It was from her ship a-sailin’, / Saying I don’t know when I’ll be comin’ back again, / It depends on how I’m a-feelin’.” Now the man is upset, and decides he’ll take her up on her offer. “Well, if you, my love, must think that-a-way, / I’m sure your mind is roamin’. / I’m sure your heart is not with me, / But with the country to where you’re goin'.” Then he puts the boot in, as it were. “So take heed, take heed of the western wind, / Take heed of the stormy weather. / And yes, there’s something you can send back to me, / Spanish boots of Spanish leather.” Ah, yes, and I got it right, after decades of assuming it was the man who went away – which just shows how conditioned one can become. Wikipedia says the melody was inspired by Martin Carthy’s arrangement of the English folk song, Scarborough Fair, the melodic source also of Girl From The North Country. This was when he was in
For a supposedly bleak album, there are several earthly delights, or in this case, nautical wonders, in the shape of When The Ship Comes In. With the harmonica back between verses, the mood remains low-key, but it is the lyrics which really lift this song. “Oh the time will come up / When the winds will stop / And the breeze will cease to be breathin’. / Like the stillness in the wind / ’Fore the hurricane begins, / The hour when the ship comes in.” Has a storm at sea ever been better described? “Oh the seas will split / And the ship will hit / And the sands on the shoreline will be shaking. / Then the tide will sound / And the wind will pound / And the morning will be breaking.” Is the ship wrecked? Nature seems unconcerned. “Oh the fishes will laugh / As they swim out of the path / And the seagulls they’ll be smiling. / And the rocks on the sand / Will proudly stand, / The hour that the ship comes in.” One assumes a ship “coming in” is doing so voluntarily, not forced ashore by the weather. “And the words that are used / For to get the ship confused / Will not be understood as they’re spoken. / For the chains of the sea / Will have busted in the night /And will be buried at the bottom of the ocean.” Clearly also set back in the days of the sailing ships, it continues: “A song will lift / As the mainsail shifts / And the boat drifts on to the shoreline. / And the sun will respect / Every face on the deck, / The hour that the ship comes in.” It seems they have made landfall safely: “Then the sands will roll / Out a carpet of gold / For your weary toes to be a-touchin’. / And the ship’s wise men / Will remind you once again / That the whole wide world is watchin’.” Woody’s son Arlo would do arguably one of the finest versions of this song a decade later, but this Dylan original is also delightful in its own right: “Oh the foes will rise / With the sleep still in their eyes / And they’ll jerk from their beds and think they’re dreamin’. / But they’ll pinch themselves and squeal / And know that it’s for real, / The hour when the ship comes in.” I remain, however, confused about what has happened here: “Then they’ll raise their hands, / Sayin’ we’ll meet all your demands, / But we’ll shout from the bow your days are numbered. / And like Pharaoh’s tribe, / They’ll be drownded in the tide, / And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered.” There are biblical allusions here which I hope Wikipedia will unravel for us. The website quotes Heylin as saying the song was written in August 1963 “in a fit of pique, in a hotel room, after his unkempt appearance had led an impertinent hotel clerk to refuse him admission until his companion, Joan Baez, had vouched for his good character”. And here we discover the depth of Dylan’s influences, for Wikipedia says Heylin speculates that Jenny’s Song from Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera was also an inspiration. “As Pirate Jenny dreams of the destruction of all her enemies by a mysterious ship, so Dylan envisages the neophones being swept aside “in the hour when the ship comes in”. At the time Suze Rotolo was working for the Circle in the Square Threatre. She said Dylan often came to listen to Pirate Jenny sung by Lotte Lenya.
But it’s time for another bleak song – bleak but beautiful. The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll is again sung to a muted, strummed guitar. At nearly six minutes, the verses are interspersed with some long harmonica breaks. It is a song about how the rich will always get the justice then can pay for. “William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll / With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger / At a
Strangely, Wikipedia has no comment to offer about the final track, Restless Farewell, which runs to 5:32 minutes. This melody, however, I know is based on the old Irish folk song, The Parting Glass. Again, a few chords are strummed before Dylan launches into it: “Oh all the money that in my whole life I did spend, / Be it mine right or wrongfully, / I let it slip gladly past the hands of my friends / To tie up the time most forcefully. / But the bottles are done, / We’ve killed each one / And the table’s full and overflowed. / And the corner sign / Says it’s closing time, / So I’ll bid farewell and be down the road.” So, with money, a good time was had by all. “Oh ev’ry girl that ever I’ve touched, / I did not do it harmfully. / And ev’ry girl that ever I’ve hurt, / I did not do it knowin’ly. / But to remain as friends and make amends / You need the time and stay behind. / And since my feet are now fast / And point away from the past, / I’ll bid farewell and be down the line.” I love that line about his feet pointing “away from the past”. “Oh ev’ry foe that ever I faced, / The cause was there before we came. / And ev’ry cause that ever I fought, / I fought it full without regret or shame. / But the dark does die / As the curtain is drawn and somebody’s eyes / Must meet the dawn. / And if I see the day / I’d only have to stay, / So I’ll bid farewell in the night and be gone.” It’s great to see these lyrics, instead of trying to fathom what Dylan is singing: “Oh, ev’ry thought that’s strung a knot in my mind, / I might go insane if it couldn’t be sprung. / But it’s not to stand naked under unknowin’ eyes, / It’s for myself and my friends my stories are sung. / But the time ain’t tall, / Yet on time you depend and no word is possessed / By no special friend. / And though the line is cut, / It ain’t quite the end, / I’ll just bid farewell till we meet again.” And then that immortal line about the false clock: “Oh a false clock tries to tick out my time / To disgrace, distract, and bother me. / And the dirt of gossip blows into my face, / And the dust of rumors covers me. / But if the arrow is straight / And the point is slick, / It can pierce through dust no matter how thick. / So I’ll make my stand / And remain as I am / And bid farewell and not give a damn.”
Phew, what a way to end an album! He seems to be saying that what he has done thus far, though often misinterpreted, was done for the right motives, and blowed if he won’t keep doing it in the future.
As with the previous albums, the recording sessions for The Times They Are a-Changin’ also produced several surplus songs, with Wikipedia quoting Clinton Heylin as saying “perhaps the two best songs, Percy’s Song and Lay Down Your Weary Tune”, failed to meet Dylan’s “narrow bounds” for the album. By coincidence, both are on a treasured tape made for me by my late brother Alistair from the Biograph album. I’ll return to these remarkable songs later. Another celebrated “outtake” was Only A Hobo, later made famous by Rod Stewart on his Gasoline Alley album (1970).
Discussing the aftermath to the album, Wikipedia says Dylan held a concert at
Tim Riley of NPR later called The Times They Are a-Changin’ as akin to “Masters Of War stretched out into a concept album” due to its “social preening and black-and-white moralism”. But that seems to ignore those several beautiful songs between the more pessimistic tracks. However, as Wikipedia notes, by the time the album was released, on Janary 13, 1964, Dylan was “pulling further away from his popular image as a protest singer”.
Another Side Of Bob Dylan
I was interested to read that the song, My Back Pages, refers specifically to the fact that Dylan had moved on from his protest era. This was the time when the use of halucogenics like LSD was becoming widespread and the Beatles themselves were exploring the world beyond straight-forwards rock ’n’ roll. So Dylan reflects that in this song: “I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.” Isn’t that a brilliantly poetic way of putting it?
Of course there are songs here that I have heard often by Dylan, like It Ain’t Me Babe (“it ain’t me you’re looking for, babe”). But I’d love to give this album a thorough listening to. Chimes Of Freedom, To Ramona, I Shall Be Free No 10, Black Crow Blues, I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met), Ballad in Plain D. I find it hard to believe I haven’t, after all these years, found a copy of this album and got into it. Ah well, such is life. One day, I shall remedy that glaring omission. But back then, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Another Side pretty well passed us by.
Tom Wilson was again behind the production of Another Side, Dylan’s fourth studio album. Wasn’t that a clever idea, calling the album Another Side of Bob Dylan? Not only is it a play on the sides of an album, but as Wikipedia notes, it reflects a “shift form the more overt, issue-oriented folk music” of the previous album. But the change was slammed by the folk community, with Sing Out! editor Irwin Silber saying he had “somehow lost touch with people” and become entangled in “the paraphernalia of fame”. Others, however, admired its innovations which, notes Wikipedia, “would have a tremendous influence on such legendary rock acts as The Beatles”. Yet, despite a change in style, the album remains a solo effort, with Dylan playing guitar, harmonica and, on one song, piano. The album reached No 43 in the
As Dylan moved from “topical troubadour to poet of the road”, as Clinton Heylin wrote, his songwriting changed. In February, 1964, he and some friends did a 20-day trip across the
So what was Dylan’s response? Back in
The album was clearly a major leap forward for Dylan. Wikipedia quotes NPR’s Tim Riley as writing that “as a set, the songs constitute a decisive act of non-commitment to issue-bound protest, to tradition-bound folk music … The love songs open up into indeterminate statements about the emotional orbits lovers take, and the topical themes pass over artificial boundaries and leap into wide-ranging social observation”. How I wish I had written that! Dylan was less fussy, observing later that “there aren’t any finger pointin’ songs” on the album.
While we did not have this album, the most important song, Chimes Of Freedom, I have heard regularly down the years. Wikipedia says it is sung “from the point of view of two friends (possibly lovers) huddled in a church doorway, watching the sky during a thunderstorm”. Clinton Heylin is quoted as saying “its sense of the power of nature … closely mirrors Lay Down Your Weary tune”. He added that its “unashamedly apocalyptic” nature “represented a leap in form that permitted even more intensely poetic songs to burst forth”. This was a rapidly maturing Dylan, who had moved substantially from the work of just a year earlier. “Far between sundown’s finish an’ midnight’s broken toll / We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing / As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds / Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing / Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight / Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight / An’ for each an’ ev’ry underdog soldier in the night / An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.” This has the makings of a great poem, yet Dylan’s genius was he put it to music, and spread it around the world: “In the city’s melted furnace, unexpectedly we watched / With faces hidden while the walls were tightening / As the echo of the wedding bells before the blowin’ rain / Dissolved into the bells of the lightning / Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake / Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked / Tolling for the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake / An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.” The flashes of lightning, the din of tolling bells, the plight of the downtrodden leap out and grab your attention. “Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail / The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder / That the clinging of the church bells blew far into the breeze / Leaving only bells of lightning and its thunder / Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind / Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind / An’ the unpawned painter behind beyond his rightful time / An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.” He was clearly have great fun tossing these words about. “Through the wild cathedral evening the rain unravelled tales / For the disrobed faceless forms of no position / Tolling for the tongues with no place to bring their thoughts / All down in taken-for-granted situations / Tolling for the deaf an’ blind, tolling for the mute / Tolling for the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute / For the misdemeanor outlaw, chased an’ cheated by pursuit / An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.” Still the storm rages, so much more powerful than the puny plight of mere mortals. “Even though a cloud’s white curtain in a far-off corner flashed / An’ the hypnotic splattered mist was slowly lifting / Electric light still struck like arrows, fired but for the ones / Condemned to drift or else be kept from drifting / Tolling for the searching ones, on their speechless, seeking trail / For the lonesome-hearted lovers with too personal a tale / An’ for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail / An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.” Some might argue that he overdoes this, over-bakes it, stretches the metaphor to breaking point. “Starry-eyed an’ laughing as I recall when we were caught / Trapped by no track of hours for they hanged suspended / As we listened one last time an’ we watched with one last look / Spellbound an’ swallowed ’til the tolling ended / Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed / For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse / An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe / An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.”
The opening track, All I Really Want To Do, was part of our regular Dylan diet. It is a wonderful example of his ability to write simple songs with witty lyrics in which he plays with words like a child, revelling in their sounds and meaning: “I ain’t lookin’ to compete with you, / Beat or cheat or mistreat you, / Simplify you, classify you, / Deny, defy or crucify you. / All I really want to do / Is, baby, be friends with you.” Clearly, my best memories of this are from the Byrds, but I also hear the Dylan version in my memory. “No, and I ain’t lookin’ to fight with you, / Frighten you or uptighten you, / Drag you down or drain you down, / Chain you down or bring you down. / All I really want to do / Is, baby, be friends with you.” And that’s a fine sentiment, but isn’t he having fun thinking of all the things he doesn’t want to do to her? “I ain’t lookin’ to block you up / Shock or knock or lock you up, / Analyze you, categorize you, / Finalize you or advertise you. / All I really want to do / Is, baby, be friends with you.” He finds a rhyming sound and then milks it for all its worth. “I don't want to straight-face you, / Race or chase you, track or trace you, / Or disgrace you or displace you, / Or define you or confine you. / All I really want to do / Is, baby, be friends with you.” Then, my name is mentioned, in lower case. “I don’t want to meet your kin, / Make you spin or do you in, / Or select you or dissect you, / Or inspect you or reject you. / All I really want to do / Is, baby, be friends with you.” The final verse: “I don’t want to fake you out, / Take or shake or forsake you out, / I ain’t lookin’ for you to feel like me, / See like me or be like me. / All I really want to do / Is, baby, be friends with you.”
The next two tracks, Black Crow Blues and Spanish Harlem Incident, I should know, but even looking at the lyrics, no major bells chime. After Chimes Of Freedom comes I Shall Be Free No 10, which I have also not heard, though I see the lyrics refer to Cassius Clay, Barry Goldwater,
Which brings us to My Back Pages, one of the great Dylan classics, again made popular by the Byrds, and others. Riley, quoted by Wikipedia, calls it “a thorough X-ray of Dylan’s former social proselytizing … Dylan renounces his former over-serious messianic perch, and disowns false insights”. Looking at the lyrics, I can’t help hearing the Byrds version before all else: “Crimson flames tied through my ears / Rollin’ high and mighty traps / Pounced with fire on flaming roads / Using ideas as my maps / ‘We’ll meet on edges, soon,’ said I / Proud ’neath heated brow. / Ah, but I was so much older then, / I’m younger than that now.” While much of this is almost unfathomable, there are some lovely images, and the chorus is a timeless bit of writing which recalls Eric Burdon and the Animals lines, “Yes I was so much older then / When I was young.” And still the images pour forth: “Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth / ‘Rip down all hate,’ I screamed / Lies that life is black and white / Spoke from my skull. I dreamed / Romantic facts of musketeers / Foundationed deep, somehow. / Ah, but I was so much older then, / I’m younger than that now.” I remember the Byrds version of this as something of a Sixties anthem. “Girls’ faces formed the forward path / From phony jealousy / To memorizing politics / Of ancient history / Flung down by corpse evangelists / Unthought of, though, somehow. / Ah, but I was so much older then, / I’m younger than that now.” But there were more lucid verses: “A self-ordained professor’s tongue / Too serious to fool / Spouted out that liberty / Is just equality in school / ‘Equality,’ I spoke the word / As if a wedding vow. / Ah, but I was so much older then, / I’m younger than that now.” The next verse I remember, albeit just the opening line: “In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand (lance?) / At the mongrel dogs who teach / Fearing not that I’d become my enemy / In the instant that I preach / My pathway led by confusion boats / Mutiny from stern to bow. / Ah, but I was so much older then, / I’m younger than that now.” It’s strange how, having heard this, like an anthem, so often all those years ago, there was no way I, and probably most of us, would have got our minds around the lyrics. So here, finally, is the final verse: “Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats / Too noble to neglect / Deceived me into thinking / I had something to protect / Good and bad, I define these terms / Quite clear, no doubt, somehow. / Ah, but I was so much older then, / I’m younger than that now.”
I have no conscious recollection of I Don’t Believe You, or Ballad in Plain D, but the final track, It Ain’t Me Babe was very popular. Plain D is a long, rambling song based on the English folk song, Once I Had A Sweetheart, and deals, says Heylin, with Dylan’s breakup with Suze Rotolo. He adds that it portrays her sister, Carla, in a cruel and inaccurate way. When asked in 1985 if he regretted writing any songs, Wikipedia says Dylan singled out Ballad In Plain D, saying “maybe I could have left that alone”.
Few Dylan fans will not have It Ain’t Me Babe implanted in their brains. “Go ’way from my window, / Leave at your own chosen speed. / I’m not the one you want, babe, / I’m not the one you need. / You say you’re lookin’ for someone / Never weak but always strong, / To protect you an’ defend you / Whether you are right or wrong, / Someone to open each and every door, / But it ain’t me, babe, / No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe, / It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe.” This is Dylan at his scathing best. Normally the blues is about male desperation in the face of losing love, but here the protagonist clearly needs to escape. “Go lightly from the ledge, babe, / Go lightly on the ground. / I’m not the one you want, babe, / I will only let you down. / You say you’re lookin’ for someone / Who will promise never to part, / Someone to close his eyes for you, / Someone to close his heart, / Someone who will die for you an’ more, / But it ain’t me, babe, / No, no, no, it ain’t me, abe, / It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe.” This song was, like My Back Pages, a constant part of the late 1960s. “Go melt back into the night, babe, / Everything inside is made of stone. / There’s nothing in here moving / An’ anyway I’m not alone. / You say you’re looking for someone / Who’ll pick you up each time you fall, / To gather flowers constantly / An’ to come each time you call, / A lover for your life an’ nothing more, / But it ain’t me, babe, / No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe, / It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe.” Having said this was a constant of the decade, I personally at the time, no doubt being too young, paid scant attention to the meaning of the lyrics. However, I’ll always treasure it as a key component of that vital part of our cultural history, which was so different to that which Mao was trying to impose in
Another Side had its share of “outtakes”, including Mama You Been On My Mind, which Joan Baez later turned into a hit, and which finally saw the light of day on Dylan’s Bootleg Series. The original Mr Tambourine Man also appears on the Bootleg Series.
I recorded on video recently one of those rare phenomena on South African television, a decent music documentary. This was of Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in July, 1964, where he played many songs off Another Side, including Chimes Of Freedom. It was here, Wikipedia says, that he first met country legend Johnny Cash, who admired his songwriting. The folk music critics weren’t entirely happy though, with David Horowiz calling his new songs an “unqualified failure of taste and self-critical awareness”. The album failed to make the US Top 40. Dylan, in 1978, said the album title was not to his liking and “just too corny”. Much later, Heylin wrote that it was a “transitional” album, in which Dylan was experimenting with imagery, as in Chimes Of Freedom. He was also critical of the “bizarre compound images”, like “corpse evangelists” and “confusion boats” on My Back Pages. That was my gut feeling earlier, when I waded through those lyrics. But I view these things from a historical perspective. That was a stage Dylan had to pass through, as he honed his skill. Indeed, NPR’s Tim Riley is quoted by Wikipedia as calling the album “a bridge between folkie rhetoric (albeit superior) and his troika of electric rants … a rock album without electric guitars…” Call it what you will, it remains an early Dylan classic, and as such a work of enormous importance.
Bringing It All Back Home
While Another Side of Bob Dylan did virtually pass us by as an album, his next was a staple part of our diet, and the start of Dylan’s electric era – a move which shocked his protest folkie followers at the time to the core.
Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan’s fifth album, was released in 1965. It is one we got into in a big way, though no doubt several years after its
Dylan met the Beatles in
Wikipedia says Bringing It All Back Home, released on March 22, 1965, is “often cited as the birth of folk-rock, and one of the peak albums of Dylan’s career”. It reached No 6 on the
With Mr Tambourine Man already written, in the summer of 1964 Dylan and Baez spent time at Grossman’s house in
He returned to
Wikipedia says when Dylan first heard The Animals’ version of House Of The Rising Sun he was ecstatic. Released in August, 1964, the song, which Dylan covered on his debut album, became a major hit single. But now it had a dramatic, electrified arrangement, and Eric Burdon’s “celebrated, blues vocal”.
I like the fact that Dylan was working with an African American producer in Tom Wilson. It’s the sort of arrangement which would have been unheard of in apartheid
Yet, says Wikipedia, when work started on the next album, on January 13, 1965, they initially stuck to acoustic music, with Dylan playing solo guitar or piano. This session produced I’ll Keep It With Mine, which I was to enjoy years later from 1985’s Biograph album. Farewell Angelina and an acoustic version of Subterranean Homesick Blues made it onto the Bootleg Series. Other classics were recorded at the time, include Love Minus Zero/No Limit, It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue; Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream and She Belongs To Me. But the next day, Dylan and Wilson got together with a full electric band, and focused on eight songs, all of which they’d worked on the previous day. One of the guitarists,
That evening, another group of musicians arrived, including John Hammon jnr and John Sebastian, along with Langhorne from earlier. They recorded six songs, and all were rejected. The next day’s session would prove the last one needed, with Dylan returning to the original line-up of musicians, apart from securing a new pianist. Each song only needed three of four takes, as the band improvised and adapted songs at Dylan’s instructions. Maggie’s Farm, for instance, required only one take. Master takes were also done of On The Road Again, It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), Gates Of Eden, Mr Tambourine Man and It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. All made the album, but If You Gotta Go, Go Now did not make it, but was released as a single in
We saw an early music “video”, a black-and-white film of Dylan holding a whole pile of cue cards, each with a couple of words or just a single word, in a short before another music feature sometime in probably the early 1970s. But we were already very familiar with the song, Subterranean Homesick Blues, which opens this album. On it, Dylan, stream-of-consciousness-like, rattles off line after line of rhyming verse about just about anything. In the video, he holds up each rhyming word and discards it as it is sung. Wikipedia says the album is “an anti-establishment diatribe that was heavily inspired by Chuck Berry’s Too Much Monkey Business, and is often cited as a precursor to rap and music videos (the cue-card scene in Don’t Look Back)”. It became a Top 40 hit for Dylan. While the CD of this album I bought on a sale a few years back ended up having no disc in it, this song is on a Greatest Hits album, so let’s give this track a listen. It is, after all, the first real example of the electric Dylan. Phew! The died-in-the-wool folkies must have reeled when they first heard this. It is indefinable. Blues, rock, folk and who knows what else, all rolled into one. Indeed, it does have a kind of rap in-your-face attitude, but still retains Dylan’s innate sense of musicality. The chord changes, and there aren’t many, keep the song interesting. It opens with a strummed acoustic guitar, but soon the electric rhythm section kicks in along with insistent electric lead guitar, which adds that vital rock edge. And it was important that Dylan move on, progress, from his folk era, irrespective of how good it had been. But Dylan did not sacrifice his harmonica, still managing to inject short blasts between this barrage of words. But what are his Subterranean Homesick Blues? He sing-talks the words at pace, but thanks to the Internet we have them at hand. And in just 2:21 minutes he manages to fit in a wealth of ideas: “Johnny’s in the basement / Mixing up the medicine / I’m on the pavement / Thinking about the government / The man in the trench coat / Badge out, laid off / Says he’s got a bad cough / Wants to get it paid off / Look out kid / It’s somethin’ you did / God knows when / But you’re doin’ it again / You better duck down the alley way / Lookin’ for a new friend / The man in the coon-skin cap / In the big pen / Wants eleven dollar bills / You only got ten.” Talk about stream-of-consciousness! But there are stories galore tucked away there. And this is the first time I’m actually seeing what he was saying. “Maggie comes fleet foot / Face full of black soot / Talkin’ that the heat put / Plants in the bed but / The phone’s tapped anyway / Maggie says that many say / They must bust in early May / Orders from the D. A. / Look out kid / Don’t matter what you did / Walk on your tip toes / Don’t try ‘No Doz’ / Better stay away from those / That carry around a fire hose / Keep a clean nose / Watch the plain clothes / You don’t need a weather man / To know which way the wind blows.” That verse could clearly be called Paranoia Blues, a common affliction of those taking illicit drugs who feel the law is on their tail. We always liked those last lines, which were easy to hear: “You don’t need a weather man / To know which way the wind blows,” though I now know it was not meant to be taken literally. “Get sick, get well / Hang around an ink well / Ring bell, hard to tell / If anything is goin’ to sell / Try hard, get barred / Get back, write Braille / Get jailed, jump bail / Join the army, if you fail / Look out kid / You’re gonna get hit / But users, cheaters / Six-time losers / Hang around the theaters / Girl by the whirlpool / Lookin’ for a new fool / Don’t follow leaders / Watch the parkin’ meters” It just keeps pouring forth, each couple of lines a story in itself. “Ah get born, keep warm / Short pants, romance, learn to dance / Get dressed, get blessed / Try to be a success / Please her, please him, buy gifts / Don’t steal, don’t lift / Twenty years of schoolin’ / And they put you on the day shift / Look out kid / They keep it all hid.” I don’t think there are natural “breaks” between verses. “Better jump down a manhole / Light yourself a candle / Don’t wear sandals / Try to avoid the scandals / Don’t wanna be a bum / You better chew gum / The pump don’t work / ’Cause the vandals took the handles.” Not your typical folk-rock song. Indeed, little about Dylan was “typical”, so as usual one had to expect the unexpected, and adapt to it. Which is what we did, with alacrity. But isn’t the NPR’s Tim Riley a wonderful critique. Wikipedia quotes him about this song: “Snagged by a sour, pinched guitar riff, the song has an acerbic tinge … and Dylan sings the title rejoinders in mock self-pity. It’s less an indictment of the system than a coil of imagery that spells out how the system hangs itself with the rope it’s so proud of.”
This album’s track progression is engrained in my psyche. After that frenetic rush, we return to a more folk-like idiom on the beautiful She Belongs To Me. This, too, was a veritable anthem of the era. We became steeped in it. “She’s got everything she needs, / She’s an artist, she don’t look back. / She’s got everything she needs, / She’s an artist, she don’t look back. / She can take the dark out of the nighttime / And paint the daytime black.” I love love songs that are written with this sort of assurance. A few choice concepts, simply expressed, do the trick. “You will start out standing / Proud to steal her anything she sees. / You will start out standing / Proud to steal her anything she sees. / But you will wind up peeking through her keyhole / Down upon your knees.” Doesn’t that speak of a wonderful desperation? “She never stumbles, / She’s got no place to fall. / She never stumbles, / She’s got no place to fall. / She’s nobody's child, / The Law can’t touch her at all.” Hell, man. This woman doesn’t belong to anyone. She sounds like Superwoman, which of course is how one can so easily perceive the person you are besotted with. “She wears an Egyptian ring / That sparkles before she speaks. / She wears an Egyptian ring / That sparkles before she speaks. / She’s a hypnotist collector, / You are a walking antique.” Her powers just grow and grow. “Bow down to her on Sunday, / Salute her when her birthday comes. / Bow down to her on Sunday, / Salute her when her birthday comes. / For Halloween give her a trumpet / And for Christmas, buy her a drum.”
From that beautiful ballad, Dylan plunges us back into the zany world which his mind would so often visit, plucking its crazy fruit. Wikipedia quotes critic Bill Wyman as calling Maggie’s Farm “a loping, laconic look at the service industry”, while Tim Riley saw it as the “counterculture’s war cry”, though he also saw it as “a rock star’s gripe to his record company, a songwriter’s gripe to his publisher, and a singer-as-commodity’s gripe to his audience-as-market”. This, too, was one of those Dylan songs that we lapped up. I remember some shrill electric guitar here, but always subservient to the main element, which remained the lyrics. “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more. / No, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more. / Well, I wake in the morning, / Fold my hands and pray for rain. / I got a head full of ideas / That are drivin’ me insane. / It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor. / I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.” Is this, perhaps, a metaphor for another “unevenly yoked” relationship with a woman? “I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more. / No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more. / Well, he hands you a nickel, / He hands you a dime, / He asks you with a grin / If you’re havin’ a good time, / Then he fines you every time you slam the door. / I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more.” It seems the whole family is against him. “I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no more. / No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no more. / Well, he puts his cigar / Out in your face just for kicks. / His bedroom window / It is made out of bricks. / The National Guard stands around his door. / Ah, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no more.” This is one formidable family. “I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more. / No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more. / Well, she talks to all the servants / About man and God and law. / Everybody says / She’s the brains behind pa. / She’s sixty-eight, but she says she’s twenty-four. / I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more.” Brilliant stuff! So what was the denouement? “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more. / No, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more. / Well, I try my best / To be just like I am, / But everybody wants you / To be just like them. / They sing while you slave and I just get bored. / I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.” Clearly not meant to be taken literally, Maggie, it seems, is a metaphor for all those with expectations of you. At the time, however, we just lapped up the song, and the wonderful fun Dylan had with words.
And then, as with all of the greatest albums, there is another change in mood, with Maggie’s Farm being followed by arguably one of Dylan’s most beautiful, most brilliant songs ever, Love Minus Zero/No Limit. Wikipedia calls it a “low-key love song”, with Riley in typically perceptive fashion describing it as a “hallucinatory allegiance, a poetic turn that exposes the paradoxes of love ….” Comparing it to the later Just Like A Woman, he says in both cases “a woman’s susceptibility is linked to the singer’s defenceless infatuation”. Whatever. For me, it is simply a beautiful song, brilliantly executed. “My love she speaks like silence, / Without ideals or violence, / She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful, / Yet she’s true, like ice, like fire. / People carry roses, / Make promises by the hours, / My love she laughs like the flowers, / Valentines can’t buy her.” What a rich collection of images in one verse. “In the dime stores and bus stations, / People talk of situations, / Read books, repeat quotations, / Draw conclusions on the wall. / Some speak of the future, / My love she speaks softly, / She knows there’s no success like failure / And that failure’s no success at all.” That is the paradox of love that Riley spoke of. But I liked the playful lines like people “drawing conclusions on the wall”. “The cloak and dagger dangles, / Madams light the candles. / In ceremonies of the horsemen, / Even the pawn must hold a grudge. / Statues made of match sticks, / Crumble into one another, / My love winks, she does not bother, / She knows too much to argue or to judge.” Phew! Another humdinger of a verse. There’s that chess allusion, and then this woman who knows too much even to judge. “The bridge at midnight trembles, / The country doctor rambles, / Bankers’ nieces seek perfection, / Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring. / The wind howls like a hammer, / The night blows cold and rainy, / My love she’s like some raven / At my window with a broken wing.” And here, I believe, we do see the softer side of this superwoman, another superwoman, who when the weather turns bad, arrives at his window like a raven with a broken wing.
Now if I had to say Outlaw Blues to you, would you be able to recall the song? I can’t. But the moment I read the first line of the lyrics, it all comes flooding back. This, again, was a quicker-paced song in the new electric Dylan style. “Ain’t it hard to stumble / And land in some funny lagoon? / Ain’t it hard to stumble / And land in some muddy lagoon? / Especially when it’s nine below zero / And three o’clock in the afternoon.” Only Dylan could have written a song like this. “Ain’t gonna hang no picture, / Ain’t gonna hang no picture frame. / Ain’t gonna hang no picture, / Ain’t gonna hang no picture frame. / Well, I might look like Robert Ford / But I feel just like a Jesse James.” How he allows you to travel through the use of a few words: “Well, I wish I was on some / Australian mountain range. / Oh, I wish I was on some / Australian mountain range. / I got no reason to be there, but I / Imagine it would be some kind of change.” Lovely, irreverent stuff. “I got my dark sunglasses, / I got for good luck my black tooth. / I got my dark sunglasses, / I’m carryin’ for good luck my black tooth. / Don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’, / I just might tell you the truth.” Again, a typical Dylanism. “I got a woman in
Again, could you recall On The Road Again? Not the Canned Heat song, but the Dylan track on Bringing it all Back Home. Well, I couldn’t. But a quick glance at the lyrics and it all flows back. It’s another of those wacky songs he seemed to produce in a flash of brilliance. “Well, I woke up in the morning / There’s frogs inside my socks / Your mama, she’s a-hidin’ / Inside the icebox / Your daddy walks in wearin’ / A Napoleon Bonaparte mask / Then you ask why I don’t live here / Honey, do you have to ask?” And then that interesting few bars between the verses. “Well, I go to pet your monkey / I get a face full of claws / I ask who’s in the fireplace / And you tell me Santa Claus / The milkman comes in / He’s wearing a derby hat / Then you ask why I don’t live here / Honey, how come you have to ask me that?” It’s a weird, bizarre house, man. “Well, I asked for something to eat / I’m hungry as a hog / So I get brown rice, seaweed / And a dirty hot dog / I’ve got a hole / Where my stomach disappeared / Then you ask why I don’t live here / Honey, I gotta think you’re really weird.” This has a Maggie’s Farm feel to it. “Your grandpa’s cane / It turns into a sword / Your grandma prays to pictures / That are pasted on a board / Everything inside my pockets / Your uncle steals / Then you ask why I don’t live here / Honey, I can’t believe that you’re for real.” Imagine being a teenager, with the world of opportunity ahead of you, and you’re listening to this stuff. Small wonder our minds were not entirely on our schoolwork. “Well, there’s fist fights in the kitchen / They’re enough to make me cry / The mailman comes in / Even he’s gotta take a side / Even the butler / He’s got something to prove / Then you ask why I don’t live here / Honey, how come you don’t move?” And by now we’re only about halfway though this album, which runs to 46:54 minutes, another of those offerings jam-packed with goodies.
And can you recall, offhand, what Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream was all about. It lasts 6:30 minutes, so it’s not some short pop song. I couldn’t, until I checked out the lyrics, in the absence of having the music to hand. And then it again came flooding back. This was the long, rambling tale about the discovery of
As I said, an album jam-packed with information. Next up, according to Wikipedia, one of Dylan’s most famous, and probably also most misunderstood songs, Mr Tambourine Man, which as we saw earlier, was written in February, 1964, and first recorded for Another Side of Bob Dylan. Naturally, given its dense imagery, the establishment dismissed it as the ravings of a loony hooked on LSD. However, Wikipedia quotes “eyewitness accounts” as saying the song was written weeks before he first experimented with the drug. But was he again pulling our collective leg when he later said the song was inspired by, well, a large tambourine owned by
And yet there are still three classic, lengthy songs still to go on this album. We’re deep into the acoustic half, and Gates Of Eden was another of those works which drew us into the heart of Dylan’s web. Wikipedia sees it as building on “the developments made with Chimes Of Freedom and Mr Tambourine Man”. It quotes Heylin as calling it “a song of vivid experience, constructed in the form of a dream, that came to him in ‘a house that is not mine’ “. Indeed, the incredibly perceptive Heylin hits the nail on the head in his typically erudite way. Wikipedia quotes him as saying that “of all the songs about Sixties self-consciousness and generation-bound identity, none forecasts the lost innocence of an entire generation better than Gates Of Eden. Sung with ever-forward motion, as though the words were carving their own quixotic phrasings, these images seem to tumble out of Dylan with a will all their own; he often chops off phrases to get to the next line”. If your appetite is sufficiently whetted, let’s consider this work, yet another beacon in the Dylan oeuvre. Aaagh! I just have to see the opening lines to remember how this song would seer through my brain as a teenager, as I tried to unravel its words and reveal its meanings. “Of war and peace the truth just twists / Its curfew gull just glides / Upon four-legged forest clouds / The cowboy angel rides / With his candle lit into the sun / Though its glow is waxed in black / All except when ’neath the trees of Eden.” What, in heaven’s name, are “four-legged forest clouds”? Yet, if one thinks about it, perhaps it is an allusion to the clouds which build up above forests, and jungles, where the tall trunks are seen as legs. Who knows? “The lamppost stands with folded arms / Its iron claws attached / To curbs ’neath holes where babies wail / Though it shadows metal badge / All and all can only fall / With a crashing but meaningless blow / No sound ever comes from the Gates of Eden.” Was this the stuff of nightmares, or what? “The savage soldier sticks his head in sand / And then complains / Unto the shoeless hunter who’s gone deaf / But still remains / Upon the beach where hound dogs bay / At ships with tattooed sails / Heading for the Gates of Eden.” Phew! “With a time-rusted compass blade / Aladdin and his lamp / Sits with Utopian hermit monks / Side saddle on the Golden Calf / And on their promises of paradise / You will not hear a laugh / All except inside the Gates of Eden.” How is that for encapsulating a bit of eastern religion? “Relationships of ownership / They whisper in the wings / To those condemned to act accordingly / And wait for succeeding kings / And I try to harmonize with songs / The lonesome sparrow sings / There are no kings inside the Gates of Eden.” The bizarre images keep pouring forth: “The motorcycle black Madonna / Two-wheeled gypsy queen / And her silver-studded phantom cause / The gray flannel dwarf to scream / As he weeps to wicked birds of prey / Who pick up on his bread crumb sins / And there are no sins inside the Gates of Eden.” Could this “gypsy queen” have inspired Pete Townshend of the Who’s “gypsy, acid queen”? Just askin’. “The kingdoms of Experience / In the precious wind they rot / While paupers change possessions / Each one wishing for what the other has got / And the princess and the prince / Discuss what’s real and what is not / It doesn’t matter inside the Gates of Eden.” It is menacingly logical at times, with paupers, who logically have nothing, wishing for what each other has in a cruel irony, while royalty, who have everything, dwell on whether things are in fact real or not. “The foreign sun, it squints upon / A bed that is never mine / As friends and other strangers / From their fates try to resign / Leaving men wholly, totally free / To do anything they wish to do but die / And there are no trials inside the Gates of Eden.” Phew! Again. Are your friends just strangers, really? And the strangest thing is all this happens in
At 15 verses and 7:29 minutes long, It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) is, according to Wikipedia, “arguably one of Dylan’s finest songs”. I certainly know there were lines from this song that we lapped up, though we never really analysed what it was about. But an examination of the lyrics reveals a fairly harsh critique of the
The final track, It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, fittingly, is a far less intense love song, but with its own obvious charm and barbs. The song, says Wikipedia, was described by Riley as a sad goodbye when separation occurs long after a relationship is actually over, “when lovers know each other too well to bother hiding the truth from each other”. I’d like to hear Van Morrison and his band, Them, who did a version of this song way back in 1966 which, says Wikipedia, is one of the best Dylan covers ever recorded. I’ve just given this song a relisten on that Greatest Hits album, and again I was struck by that subtle use of an electric guitar alongside the strummed acoustic guitar and harmonica. Single notes are plucked, often on the bass strings, giving far greater depth and body to the song that it would normally have had as a pure folk song. It is not folk-rock, but some wonderful construct that is purely and originally Dylan. The opening lines of every Dylan song are of paramount importance, and these strike with great force. “You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last. / But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast. / Yonder stands your orphan with his gun, / Crying like a fire in the sun. / Look out the saints are comin’ through / And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.” It’s hard to relate this to a relationship between a man and a woman. And who’s this armed orphan crying like a fire in the sun? “The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense. / Take what you have gathered from coincidence. / The empty-handed painter from your streets / Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets. / The sky, too, is folding under you / And it's all over now, Baby Blue.” I remember at the time we used to assume that the patterns drawn on her sheets by the painter were all about sex. And what is that about taking what he has gathered from coincidence? Experience is considered the best teacher, but I guess coincidence is part of it. “All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home. / All your reindeer armies, are all going home. / The lover who just walked out your door / Has taken all his blankets from the floor. / The carpet, too, is moving under you / And it's all over now, Baby Blue.” There is a general sense of retreat here – of taking what you can and scarpering. “Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you. / Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you. / The vagabond who’s rapping at your door / Is standing in the clothes that you once wore. / Strike another match, go start anew / And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.” The man who for over a decade has been our fortnightly gardener (under apartheid they were called “garden boys”), is certainly no vagabond, just someone in need of money, and I have been amazed at how long a jumper I gave him has lasted. He makes a point, it seems, of wearing it every time he comes to work for us. But with that brilliant track this album, by the rapidly maturing Dylan is also over, Baby Blue.
Wikipedia tells us that one of the outtakes from the album, If You Gotta Go, Go Now (Or Else You Got To Stay All Night) was parodied by Fairport Convention on their third album, Unhalfbricking. It is an acoustic, French song called Si Tu Dois Partir, and I’m ashamed to say I’ve not heard that album. It seems Fairport also did a version of I’ll Keep It With Mine on What We Did on Our Holidays, another critically acclaimed album I don’t know. However, I do know this song from 1985’s Biograph. Also from this recording session was Farewell Angelina, which Joan Baez released in 1965 as the title track of her album.
The tables between Baez and Dylan had changed rapidly, and Wikipedia observes that the release of Bringing It All Back Home coincided with the final show of a joint tour by them. “By now, Dylan had grown far more popular and acclaimed than Baez, and it would be the last time they’d perform together in a very long time.” Wikipedai says the album “signalled a new era”. It was one of his “most celebrated albums” and was “soon hailed as one of the greatest albums in rock history”. But what was the album’s name all about? Wikipedia quotes Rolling Stone Record Guide critic Dave Marsh, in 1979, writing that “by fusing the Chuck Berry beat of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles with the leftist, folk tradition of the folk revival, Dylan really had brought it back home, creating a new kind of rock & roll … that made every type of artistic tradition available to rock”. Biographer Clinton Heylin is quoted as saying the album was possible “the most influential album of its era. Almost everything to come in contemporary popular song can be found therein”.
And things had only just started, because he was already working on his next album, Highway 61 Revisited, released on August 30 1965, which Wikipedia says “would take his new lyrical and musicial direction even further”.
Highway 61 Revisited
Highway 61 Revisited would be his sixth studio album, again released by Columbia Records, and the first by Dylan recorded entirely with a full rock band, says Wikipedia. And, it seems, the album was considered as documenting the “angry young man” period in his career, with “most of the songs … of an accusatory nature and featured in rough, loud takes”. Growing up at the time, of course, this album was again very much part of our lives, with its two hits, Like A Rolling Stone and Ballad Of A Thin Man again becoming globally recognizable Dylan songs. While accusatory, Wikipedia says the album is “generally considered to be among the artist’s best and most influential efforts”. And it did very well commercially, reaching No 3 in the US and No 4 in the UK, while Like A Rolling Stone reached No 2 in the US and No 4 in the UK.
The blues permeates this album, hence its title. Because that was the “
Sadly, in my view, Dylan changed producers. But Bob Johnston clearly knew how to bring out the best in him. He recorded Like A Rolling Stone in mid-June, 1965, with Tom Wilson, but
The impact of the large English rhythm & blues movement on Dylan was unavoidable, and ensured he continued on his new direction. The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, Van Morrison’s Them and The Animals would all make an impact. For a brief recording session at Levy’s Recording Studio on May 12, Tom Wilson and Dylan even recruited John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, who had recently signed guitarist Eric Clapton, formerly of the Yardbirds. While the session ended up something of a drunken failure, it clearly opened Dylan’s eyes to the direction British top rock musicians were taking. Ever the songwriter, Dylan found during 1964/65 that while writing a book, Tarantula (published only in 1971) he took a small fragment and turned it into Like A Rolling Stone.
It was with this song that he and Tom Wilson got to work, bringing in an old acquaintance of Dylan’s Mike Bloomfield, on lead guitar. He was from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, which Wikipedia calls a “critically acclaimed American blues-rock band”. He took
On Monday, August 2, after a short break and slight personnel change, Highway 61 Revisted, Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, Queen Jane Approximately and Ballad Of A Thin Man were successfully recorded. Another take of Desolation Row, with few instruments, again was rejected. Finally, on August 4, this song was recorded with just two acoustic guitars, with Charlie McCoy having been flown in from
Dylan just gets better and better. I’ve just given Highway 61 Revisited a fresh spin and discover a wealth of new development since the previous album. Now he’s playing with a full band, and seemingly loving every minute of it. And of course the album is packed with iconic songs.
Not surprisingly, Wikipedia get excited about the opening track, Like A Rolling Stone, which they describe as “one of the most celebrated recordings in rock history”. This, finally, is Dylan with a great band behind him, the organ, piano and electric guitar, over bass and drums, giving the song a rich, full sound, while near the end he still finds space for some incisive harmonica. Having grown up with the album, I never really bothered to analyse just what it was he was singing about, but Wikipedia says – and it now seems obvious – that it is a song “directed at a woman who once lived a life of privilege but has now experienced a reversal of fortune”. A friend of Dylan’s, folk singer Paul Nelson, is quoted as saying that when he first heard it he was recording a folk album at the time, and thought, “Oh boy, this just makes what we did obsolete”. Paul McCartney is quoted as saying when he first heard the single it “showed all of us that it was possible to go a little further”, while
The next track, Tombstone Blues, is probably the first by Dylan which features true-blue rock lead guitar breaks between the verses, which give the song much of its character. It starts with some fast acoustic guitar, with the lead guitar and other backing instruments soon kicking in. This is Dylan at his surrealist best. Critic Bill Janovitz is quoted by Wikipedia as saying the song is “rich in non sequiturs”, while he takes “irreverent jabs at religious, political and bureaucratic figures”. Again, this is an absolute Dylan classic, the ideas and images just pouring forth in a steady stream: “The sweet pretty things are in bed now of course / The city fathers they’re trying to endorse / The reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse / But the town has no need to be nervous.” “The ghost of Belle Starr she hands down her wits / To Jezebel the nun she violently knits / A bald wig for Jack the Ripper who sits / At the head of the chamber of commerce.” The allusions to historical figures flow thick and fast ahead of the chorus: “Mama’s in the fact’ry / She ain’t got no shoes / Daddy’s in the alley / He’s lookin’ for the fuse / I’m in the streets / With the tombstone blues.” Then comes the first of those short, sharp lead guitar breaks. “The hysterical bride in the penny arcade /Screaming she moans, ‘I've just been made’ / Then sends out for the doctor who pulls down the shade / Says, ‘My advice is to not let the boys in’.” Of course as teens we loved the sexual implications of this verse. “Now the medicine man comes and he shuffles inside / He walks with a swagger and he says to the bride / ‘Stop all this weeping, swallow your pride / You will not die, it’s not poison’.” The chorus is repeated before the following verse: “Well, John the Baptist after torturing a thief / Looks up at his hero the Commander-in-Chief / Saying, ‘Tell me great hero, but please make it brief / Is there a hole for me to get sick in?’.” I don’t know the biblical reference here, but Dylan certainly laid it on with the response: “The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly / Saying, ‘Death to all those who would whimper and cry’ / And dropping a bar bell he points to the sky / Saying, ‘The sun’s not yellow it’s chicken’.” What a lovely bit of irreverent fun. “The king of the Philistines his soldiers to save / Puts jawbones on their tombstones and flatters their graves / Puts the pied pipers in prison and fattens the slaves / Then sends them out to the jungle.” Then follows: “Gypsy Davey with a blowtorch he burns out their camps / With his faithful slave Pedro behind him he tramps / With a fantastic collection of stamps / To win friends and influence his uncle.” This is no doubt a reference to Dale Carnegie’s 1936 book on winning friends. And what’s this next verse about? “The geometry of innocent flesh on the bone / Causes Galileo’s math book to get thrown / At Delilah who sits worthlessly alone / But the tears on her cheeks are from laughter.” Then: “Now I wish I could give Brother Bill his great thrill / I would set him in chains at the top of the hill / Then send out for some pillars and Cecil B. DeMille / He could die happily ever after.” The pillars, of course, were Samson’s. “Where Ma Raney and Beethoven once unwrapped their bed roll / Tuba players now rehearse around the flagpole / And the National Bank at a profit sells road maps for the soul / To the old folks home and the college.” A quick google reveals that Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett Rainey, better known as Ma Rainey (1886-1939) was one of the earliest known American professional blues singers. An African American, she was known as the Mother of the Blues. I just thought we ought to know who Beethoven was bedding down with. Dylan continues: “Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain / That could hold you dear lady from going insane / That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain / Of your useless and pointless knowledge.” And so, with the chorus playing out, that electric guitar twisting its blues-rock way along, another Dylan classic comes to an end.
But of course there was always another to follow it. It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry runs for just over four minutes on an album all of 51 minutes long. And suddenly there’s a change of mood, of feeling. Familiar old acoustic guitar chords launch the song, along with some folk-like piano and subtle lead guitar and rhythm section. The harmonica is back between verses, mixing pleasantly with lead guitar and piano. This combination provides the wonderful texture of the new Dylan sound. “Well, I ride on a mailtrain, baby, / Can’t buy a thrill. / Well, I’ve been up all night, baby, / Leanin’ on the window sill. / Well, if I die / On top of the hill / And if I don’t make it, / You know my baby will.” We liked, as teens, that altruistic approach from a parent. “Don’t the moon look good, mama, / Shinin’ through the trees? / Don’t the brakeman look good, mama, / Flagging down the ‘Double E’? / Don’t the sun look good / Goin’ down over the sea? / Don’t my gal look fine / When she’s comin' after me?” These songs about rail travel always have a lovely sense of movement to them. “Now the wintertime is coming, / The windows are filled with frost. / I went to tell everybody, / But I could not get across. / Well, I wanna be your lover, baby, / I don’t wanna be your boss. / Don’t say I never warned you / When your train gets lost.” But then again, this was a love song, so the “baby” referred to above was not, as I though in my youth, literally a baby, but rather, surely, his girlfriend.
Who’d know the words to From A Buick 6 without giving it a fresh listen? Yet it is another of those timeless Dylan songs that are instantly recalled once you hear the first few notes. This is a fast-paced electric sound, with organ and lead guitar pushing things along at a steady nick. There is a nice overlap between the harmonica and the organ, as well as the lead guitar, between verses. “I got this graveyard woman, you know she keeps my kid / But my soulful mama, you know she keeps me hid / She’s a junkyard angel and she always gives me bread / Well, if I go down dyin’, you know she bound to put a blanket on my bed.” Is this a hobo’s lament? “Well, when the pipeline gets broken and I’m lost on the river bridge / I’m cracked up on the highway and on the water’s edge / She comes down the thruway ready to sew me up with thread / Well, if I go down dyin’, you know she bound to put a blanket on my bed.” It think it almost is. “Well, she don’t make me nervous, she don’t talk too much / She walks like Bo Diddley and she don’t need no crutch / She keeps this four-ten all loaded with lead / Well, if I go down dyin’, you know she bound to put a blanket on my bed.” And sadly, as I write this, on June 3, 2008, just yesterday Bo Diddley died, and I put the story on Page 3 in The Herald. But let’s see what happens next and if the Buick plays any role: “Well, you know I need a steam shovel mama to keep away the dead / I need a dump truck mama to unload my head / She brings me everything and more, and just like I said / Well, if I go down dyin’, you know she bound to put a blanket on my bed.”
After this relatively obscure song comes Ballad Of A Thin Man, one of Dylan’s most famous. I’ve just been listening to the Beatles White Album again, and there, on Yer Blues, they sing: “… feel so suicidal, just like Dylan’s Mr Jones”. Dylan is quoted by Wikipedia, from 1986, as saying the song was about putting somebody in their place. NPR’s Tim Riley says “Mr Jones” is a “pedigreed archetype, a person to whom knowledge is a class distinction”. But, because the song “taunts its subject so thoroughly, it almost makes you sympathetic toward the poor scribe”, he adds. This song was like an anthem for us. Whatever the critics said, I always thought of Mr Jones as a metaphor for the conservative short-back-and-sides older generation, like our fathers. Indeed, my dad would walk into our room sometimes, when he dared, and not know what in the hell was going on. “You walk into the room / With your pencil in your hand / You see somebody naked / And you say, ‘Who is that man?’ / You try so hard / But you don’t understand / Just what you’ll say / When you get home.” Then that famous chorus: “Because something is happening here / But you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mister Jones?” The song has a lovely slow pulse to it, with the big bass chords buttressing Dylan’s rich voice. In that opening verse Dylan gives a little chuckle as he sings “you try so hard”. Mr Jones’s confusion grows: “You raise up your head / And you ask, ‘Is this where it is?’ / And somebody points to you and says / ‘It’s his’ / And you say, ‘What’s mine?’ / And somebody else says, ‘Where what is?’ / And you say, ‘Oh my God / Am I here all alone?’.” It sounds like an Orwellian nightmare. I think now perhaps we should have some sympathy for what our parents went through. Ours was not an easy generation. “You hand in your ticket / And you go watch the geek / Who immediately walks up to you / When he hears you speak / And says, ‘How does it feel / To be such a freak?’ / And you say, ‘Impossible’ / As he hands you a bone.” And still Mr Jones doesn’t know what’s happening. “You have many contacts / Among the lumberjacks / To get you facts / When someone attacks your imagination / But nobody has any respect / Anyway they already expect you / To just give a check / To tax-deductible charity organizations.” The poor guy needs support, even if it’s from the lumberjacks – or the professors. “You've been with the professors / And they’ve all liked your looks / With great lawyers you have / Discussed lepers and crooks / You’ve been through all of / F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books / You’re very well read / It’s well known.” After the chorus, the following: “Well, the sword swallower, he comes up to you / And then he kneels / He crosses himself / And then he clicks his high heels / And without further notice / He asks you how it feels / And he says, ‘Here is your throat back / Thanks for the loan’.” Bizarre! How did he come up with this stuff? I’m feeling decidedly like Mr Jones. “Now you see this one-eyed midget / Shouting the word ‘NOW’ / And you say, ‘For what reason?’ / And he says, ‘How?’ / And you say, ‘What does this mean?’ / And he screams back, ‘You're a cow / Give me some milk / Or else go home’.” Insulting the poor ignoramus – and it’s fun, and it’s ongoing: “Well, you walk into the room / Like a camel and then you frown / You put your eyes in your pocket / And your nose on the ground There ought to be a law / Against you comin’ around / You should be made / To wear earphones.” Fortunately for poor old Mr Jones, the torture is over. Our parents had to live with us for decades. Poor blighters.
Janovitz is quoted by Wikipedia as saying that on the next song, Queen Jane Approximately, Dylan sound “simultaneously condescending, self-righteous, sneering, contemptuous and compassionate”. He says the narrator is warning someone of a great fall from grace. Musically, I found the song beautiful, possibly the nicest on the album. It starts with acoustic guitar and bold piano notes, with a light rhythm section. The organ fills out the sound, while before each verse there is a lovely rolled electric guitar chord. And he still finds space for that harmonica between verses. “When your mother sends back all your invitations / And your father to your sister he explains / That you’re tired of yourself and all of your creations / Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane? / Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?” The writing does seem to be on the wall: “Now when all of the flower ladies want back what they have lent you / And the smell of their roses does not remain / And all of your children start to resent you / Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane? / Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?” Dylan continues to pluck ideas from thin air, wonderful concepts that turn a song into a masterpiece. “Now when all the clowns that you have commissioned / Have died in battle or in vain / And you’re sick of all this repetition / Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane? / Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?” You have to think about which other band or artist was writing stuff even remotely as interesting, and conclude there was no one, not even the Beatles, who came close. “When all of your advisers heave their plastic / At your feet to convince you of your pain / Trying to prove that your conclusions should be more drastic / Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane? / Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?” Suddenly you’re out in the Wild West: “Now when all the bandits that you turned your other cheek to / All lay down their bandanas and complain / And you want somebody you don’t have to speak to / Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane? / Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?” Of some consolation, is that she can go and see him, but what will his diagnosis and cure be, I wonder.
You know those whistles with a piece of coiled up paper that whizzes out when you blow them, normally at Christmas time? The sound that launches the title track, Highway 61 Revisited, sounds remarkably like that, but I’m sure it was made electronically. Here the story is launched with piano and a quick rhythm section, along with that wheooeoz sound. Critic Wyman is quoted by Wikipedia as describing this as possibly Dylan’s most “disturbing composition, a tone poem of brutal capitalism, incest, biblical farce, warmongering and family entertainment, all set to a carnival beat …” Riley is quoted as calling it a “leering salute to America’s heartland (that) goes after authority with a broad stroke …” As far as I was concerned, it was just great to see someone un-cowed by religion. This was a time when for many God was still represented as this great ogre in the sky who would strike you down if you did something wrong. Dylan poked fun at that image a little bit: “Oh God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’ / Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on’ / God say, ‘No.’ Abe say, ‘What?’ / God say, ‘You can do what you want Abe, but / The next time you see me comin’ you better run’ / Well Abe says, / Where do you want this killin’ done?’ / God says, ‘Out on Highway 61’.” I’m not sure what the reference to that legendary blues highway is, but let’s see where else Dylan takes us: “Well Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose / Welfare Department they wouldn’t give him no clothes / He asked poor Howard where can I go / Howard said there’s only one place I know / Sam said tell me quick man I got to run / Ol’ Howard just pointed with his gun / And said that way down on Highway 61.” Google was unable, at a quick glance, to uncover who Georgia Sam was, so let’s proceed: “Well Mack the Finger said to Louie the King / I got forty red white and blue shoe strings / And a thousand telephones that don't ring / Do you know where I can get rid of these things / And Louie the King said let me think for a minute son / And he said yes I think it can be easily done / Just take everything down to Highway 61.” We loved that image too, as kids, of a thousand telephones that don’t ring, not to mention all those shoe strings. “Now the fifth daughter on the twelfth night / Told the first father that things weren’t right / My complexion she said is much too white / He said come here and step into the light he says hmm you’re right / Let me tell the second mother this has been done / But the second mother was with the seventh son / And they were both out on Highway 61.” This seems to speak about Mormonism and polygamy. “Now the rovin’ gambler he was very bored / He was tryin’ to create a next world war / He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor / He said I never engaged in this kind of thing before / But yes I think it can be very easily done / We’ll just put some bleachers out in the sun / And have it on Highway 61.” And so what are bleachers? Wikipedia tells us it is a term used for “the raised, tiered stands” found at sports fields. So the next world war would be a spectator event on Highway 61.
The album has two tracks to go, one of 5:28 minutes’ duration, the other of 11:21. Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues is, says critic Janovitz, “a masterpiece”, according to Wikipedia. For me, it was another of those songs we heard and digested, but never really thought about what it meant. So it’s great to have the lyrics to hand. “When you’re lost in the rain in
As if to underscore all that has come before, Dylan concludes this album with the seminal masterpiece, Desolation Row. Wikipedia says that at the time it was “arguably (his) most ambitious song and for many years his longest recording”. It quotes Heylin as describing it as an “11-minute voyage through a Kafkaesque world of gypsies, hoboes, thieves of fire, and historical characters beyond their rightful time”. As noted earlier, after several abortive attempts, Johnston and Dylan called in McEvoy to accompany Dylan on a second acoustic guitar. It was an inspired move, because that second guitar really lifts the song, adding ongoing interest as it plays around Dylan’s vocals and strumming. The strumming is rapid – and had to be maintained for such a long time it is amazing no mistakes were made, though as observed earlier, two takes had to be spliced to give us the end product. Dylan also uses the odd harmonica solo to break up the song, which is another that we lived and breathed for many years. Who can ever forget that opening line? “They’re selling postcards of the hanging / They’re painting the passports brown / The beauty parlor is filled with sailors / The circus is in town / Here comes the blind commissioner / They’ve got him in a trance / One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker / The other is in his pants / And the riot squad they’re restless / They need somewhere to go / As Lady and I look out tonight / From Desolation Row.” I notice one similarity between Dylan’s long stream-of-consciousness songs on this album: Everything has to be grounded somewhere. In this case all reverts to Desolation Row. Earlier it all came back to Highway 61, and before that to Mr Jones. Anyway, there can be no denying the wonderful, psychedelic nature of these seemingly random images and ideas. So many of these lines were part of our lives. “Cinderella, she seems so easy / ‘It takes one to know one,’ she smiles / And puts her hands in her back pockets / Bette Davis style / And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning / ‘You Belong to Me I Believe’ / And someone says, ‘you’re in the wrong place, my friend / You better leave’ / And the only sound that’s left / After the ambulances go / Is Cinderella sweeping up / On Desolation Row.” Bette Davis, Romeo and Cinderalla … dealt with in a flash. “Now the moon is almost hidden / The stars are beginning to hide / The fortunetelling lady / Has even taken all her things inside / All except for Cain and Abel / And the hunchback of Notre Dame / Everybody is making love / Or else expecting rain. / And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing / He’s getting ready for the show / He’s going to the carnival tonight / On Desolation Row.” Our troubled young minds lapped this stuff up – Cain, Abel, Quasimoda, the Good Samaritan, all given the Dylan treatment. “Now Ophelia, she’s ’neath the window / For her I feel so afraid / On her twenty-second birthday / She already is an old maid / To her, death is quite romantic / She wears an iron vest / Her profession’s her religion / Her sin is her lifelessness / And though her eyes are fixed upon / Noah’s great rainbow / She spends her time peeking / Into Desolation Row.” How many songwriters today would dare to reference something so “conservative” as Hamlet’s lover in a Shakespeare play? But the references come even thicker as the song progresses. We loved this next verse. “Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood / With his memories in a trunk / Passed this way an hour ago / With his friend, a jealous monk / He looked so immaculately frightful / As he bummed a cigarette / Then he went off sniffing drainpipes / And reciting the alphabet / Now you would not think to look at him / But he was famous long ago / For playing the electric violin / On Desolation Row.” Isn’t that a wonderful put down for one of the great icons of the 20th century? “Dr. Filth, he keeps his world / Inside of a leather cup / But all his sexless patients / They’re trying to blow it up / Now his nurse, some local loser / She’s in charge of the cyanide hole / And she also keeps the cards that read / ‘Have Mercy on His Soul’ / They all play on penny whistles / You can hear them blow / If you lean your head out far enough / From Desolation Row.” I’ve no idea what that was about, but I loved it all the same. “Across the street they’ve nailed the curtains / They’re getting ready for the feast / The Phantom of the Opera / A perfect image of a priest / They’re spoonfeeding Casanova / To get him to feel more assured / Then they’ll kill him with self-confidence / After poisoning him with words / And the Phantom’s shouting to skinny girls / ‘Get Outa Here If You Don’t Know / Casanova is just being punished for going / To Desolation Row’.” By this stage your brain is churning all these things around, but there’s no time to ponder, because another verse is soon upon you. “Now at midnight all the agents / And the superhuman crew / Come out and round up everyone / That knows more than they do / Then they bring them to the factory / Where the heart-attack machine / Is strapped across their shoulders / And then the kerosene / Is brought down from the castles / By insurance men who go / Check to see that nobody is escaping / To Desolation Row.” This seems to have some reference to Nazi Germany, where the Aryan race were the superhuman crew, and of course the Jewish people, often so gifted, could easily have known more than they do. But where the insurance men fit in ... well, you go figure, as they say. “Praise be to Nero’s Neptune / The Titanic sails at dawn / And everybody’s shouting / ‘Which Side Are You On?’ / And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot / Fighting in the captain’s tower / While calypso singers laugh at them / And fishermen hold flowers / Between the windows of the sea / Where lovely mermaids flow / And nobody has to think too much / About Desolation Row.” One could probably write a book on just what Dylan intended with that verse, given the literary, historical and mythological allusions. “Yes, I received your letter yesterday / (About the time the door knob broke) / When you asked how I was doing / Was that some kind of joke? / All these people that you mention / Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame / I had to rearrange their faces / And give them all another name / Right now I can’t read too good / Don’t send me no more letters no / Not unless you mail them / From Desolation Row.” What a bizarre concept, to rearrange people’s faces and give then new names. That was one hell of a song, the concluding chapter in yet another Dylan masterpiece.
As mentioned earlier, Positively 4th Street was recorded at the same time, and only released as a single, charting in the top 10 in both the US and UK. It has a similar nastiness to Like A Rolling Stone, with critic Dave Marsh, according to Wikipedia, calling it “an icy hipster bitch session”, with Dylan “cutting loose his barbed-wire tongue at somebody luckless enough to have crossed the path of his desires”. This song was also very much part of our upbringing, not from the single, but probably from its inclusion on a greatest hits album. I recall that at the time it was thought to refer to Joan Baez. “You got a lotta nerve / To say you are my friend / When I was down / You just stood there grinning.” Was Baez ever nasty to him, I wonder. “You got a lotta nerve / To say you got a helping hand to lend / You just want to be on / The side that’s winning.” Clearly there was a lot of professional jealousy between the two. “You say I let you down / You know it’s not like that / If you’re so hurt / Why then don’t you show it.” And isn’t that the way with women, sometimes. I think it’s the guys who get hurt most when relationships go awry. “You say you lost your faith / But that’s not where it’s at / You had no faith to lose / And you know it.” Faith in what, I wonder. “I know the reason / That you talk behind my back / I used to be among the crowd / You’re in with.” Meeeeoooow! “Do you take me for such a fool / To think I’d make contact / With the one who tries to hide / What he don’t know to begin with.” Here it seems to indicate this is a man he’s pissed off with – someone who doesn’t even know enough to have to hide it. “You see me on the street / You always act surprised / You say, ‘How are you?’ ‘Good luck’ / But you don’t mean it.” The barbs fly thick and fast. “When you know as well as me / You’d rather see me paralyzed / Why don’t you just come out once / And scream it.” Eina! (To give a seriaaas Sefrican response.) “No, I do not feel that good / When I see the heartbreaks you embrace / If I was a master thief / Perhaps I’d rob them.” That’s still awfully good poetry. “And now I know you’re dissatisfied / With your position and your place / Don’t you understand / It’s not my problem.” Then the final rapier thrust to the heart: “I wish that for just one time / You could stand inside my shoes / And just for that one moment / I could be you.” And then: “Yes, I wish that for just one time / You could stand inside my shoes / Then you’d know what a drag it is / To see you.” Wikipedia says this song is generally believed to be about the
Was Highway 61 Revisited that good? Dave Marsh wrote, says Wikipedia, that it was one of Dylan’s best “and (one) of the greatest in the history of rock & roll”. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it fourth on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Like A Rolling Stone topped the singles poll, while the title track was 364th. I enjoy Tim Riley’s assessment of the album, again quoted by Wikipedia. It was, he said, “the first Dylan record to posit protest as a way of life, a state of mind, something as psychologically bound as it is socially incumbent”. Post-Newport, Dylan had set out on a new course, and with growing commercial success, would pursue it relentlessly.
Blonde on Blonde
Blonde on Blonde (released on May 16, 1966) was Dylan’s seventh studio album and his first double album – many say the first double album in rock history. At 71: 23 minutes, there was no way they’d fit all that on a single album. And what a presence this album had in our family – or at least in the three boys’ communal bedroom. There Bob was, on the gatefold album sleeve, all trussed up in a thick brown jacket and green and white scarf, under a tousled mass of hair, looking very seriously directly into the eyes of the world. Inside, on the two LPs, were 14 new tracks which cemented Dylan as the absolute guru of our generation.
Dylan’s seventh studio album, Blond on Blonde is, says Wikipedia, “notable for injecting Dylan’s brand of blues rock, fully established on Highway 61 Revisted, with a more eclectic sound and even more surreal lyrics”. It came to be regarded as “one of the greatest rock & roll albums ever made”. It was also the end of that productive period in the mid-1960s, after his switch from pure folk music. He would soon be involved in a near-fatal motorbike accident and would change his musical approach. But this is an album we treasured with delight, probably from about the late 1960s. Recorded in
While Dylan stuck with the team from Highway 61, guitarist Mike Bloomfield and drummer Bobby Gregg were unavailable, so he recruited Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm of the Hawks (later The Band). Dylan hit the concert scene, performing on August 28, 1965, at
Dylan opted to use the Hawks in the studio, with the first session held on October 5 and 6. This produced Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window which was only released as a single, and reached No 58 in the
I’ve finally finished listening to this album, now on CD. And it’s hard to imagine what it was like some 35 years ago listening to this double LP in our bedroom, teenagers with little idea of where we were headed, but all the time latched onto this incredible music coming out of the west, with Dylan at the forefront. Listening to it today, the magic of those songs remains as fresh as when we first heard them in the flush of our youth. But it is only now, in retrospect, that I realise just what an achievement Blonde on Blone really was. This was surely the
As usual, Wikipedia offers some wonderful insights into this album, with Salon.com critic Bill Wyman writing that Dylan’s “singing alone is a catalogue of the human emotion genome, excepting perhaps mercy. Dylan swaggers, brags, sighs, loves, loses, smiles, grieves, pleads, lusts, swoons and trips – and that’s just on Pledging My Time and Visions Of Johanna”. I love great musical appreciation, and Wyman really lays it on, saying that Just Like A Woman is a love song “so elegant and confused it’s not clear today, nearly 35 years later, whether it is insufferably condescending or startlingly lovely”. I remember sitting through the entire one side of the LP, as Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands played out, and being left totally sated at the end – having digested the musical equivalent of a feast.
The album opens with Rainy Day Women #12 & 35. It is a strange title for an opening track, but also a wake-up for those who may have allowed the cover photograph of a rather stoned-looking Dylan, all trussed up in coat and scarf, to think he’d somehow mellowed. No, this opening song launches straight into an almost carnival sound of drums, cymbals, harmonica and horns. Bursts of trombone, chants and whoops, along with some insistent tambourine and prominent piano gets one into the groove. And of course, with my brothers, friends and I not averse about this time to experiment with the dreaded weed, the chorus line seemed to fit in nicely with our rebellious streak. But was he really singing about getting stoned? I suspect we are dealing more with intolerance and judgmentalism. “Well, they’ll stone ya when you’re trying to be so good, / They’ll stone ya just a-like they said they would. / They’ll stone ya when you’re tryin’ to go home. / Then they’ll stone ya when you’re there all alone. / But I would not feel so all alone, / Everybody must get stoned.” Dylan even manages to inject a wry, ironic bit of laughter after this line. The fatalistic look at the world continues: “Well, they’ll stone ya when you’re walkin’ ’long the street. / They’ll stone ya when you’re tryin’ to keep your seat. / They’ll stone ya when you’re walkin’ on the floor. / They’ll stone ya when you’re walkin’ to the door. / But I would not feel so all alone, / Everybody must get stoned.” Thus far, this does not seem the most incisive of songs, but let’s see where it heads. “They’ll stone ya when you’re at the breakfast table. / They’ll stone ya when you are young and able. / They’ll stone ya when you’re tryin’ to make a buck. / They’ll stone ya and then they’ll say, ‘good luck’. / Tell ya what, I would not feel so all alone, / Everybody must get stoned.” All the time that trombone is pumping, with the harmonica swirling along beside it. “Well, they’ll stone you and say that it’s the end. / Then they’ll stone you and then they’ll come back again. / They’ll stone you when you’re riding in your car. / They’ll stone you when you’re playing your guitar. / Yes, but I would not feel so all alone, / Everybody must get stoned.” The song seems to end on a rather sardonic note: “Well, they’ll stone you when you walk all alone. / They’ll stone you when you are walking home./ They’ll stone you and then say you are brave. / They’ll stone you when you are set down in your grave. / But I would not feel so all alone, / Everybody must get stoned.” Wikipedia says Dylan described this as “a Salvation Army sound”, while Wikipedia says Wyman called it a “stoner anthem” due to its drunk atmosphere and the continual use of the words ‘stoned’”. But it took critic Clinton Heylin to unearth a biblical underpinning. Wikipedia quotes him as saying the song generated “some controversy among those unconversant with Proverbs 27:15.” (“A continual dropping in a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike.”)
Bob Dylan was easily parodied. His idiosyncratic singing voice was often the butt of light-hearted rip-offs, such as one by Jose Feliciano during his famous Coke adverts skit. And it is on a song like Pledging My Time that THAT voice is most obvious. Yet it is precisely because he sang in such a bizarre way that the song has become so memorable. Drums, sharp harmonica bursts and lead guitar are backed by a slow, thumping bass-led rhythm section as Dylan ventures on another musical journey. This is his romantic side (I think): “Well, early in the mornin’ / ’Til late at night, / I got a poison headache, / But I feel all right. / I’m pledging my time to you, / Hopin’ you’ll come through, too.” The lead guitar sears and soars between each line, and with the harmonica between verses, with a tinkling of piano also apparent. “Well, the hobo jumped up, / He came down natur’lly. / After he stole my baby, / Then he wanted to steal me. / But I’m pledging my time to you, / Hopin’ you'll come through, too.” It’s typically obscure Dylan, rich in substance, unclear in precise meaning. “Won’t you come with me, baby? / I’ll take you where you wanna go. / And if it don’t work out, / You’ll be the first to know. / I’m pledging my time to you, / Hopin’ you'll come through, too.” Just imagine that Dylan voice on the next verse. “Well, the room is so stuffy, / I can hardly breathe. / Ev’rybody’s gone but me and you / And I can’t be the last to leave. / I’m pledging my time to you, / Hopin’ you'll come through, too.” Breeeaaathe! Leeeaaave! All breathy and gaspy. But that was the Dylan sound, and we grew to love it.
Next up, one of the great achievements of modern music, all 7:30 minutes of Visions Of Johanna. A slowly strummed acoustic guitar and inevitable harmonica, backed by subtle drums, bass and organ prepare the ground for one of the greatest opening verses ever. “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet? / We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it / And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it / Lights flicker from the opposite loft / In this room the heat pipes just cough / The country music station plays soft / But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off / Just Louise and her lover so entwined / And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind.” I’ll leave it to the experts to decipher these lines, but for me growing up it was just the atmosphere created by them which was so impressive. It was so unbelievably mellow, punctuated by those sharp, clipped little jabs from the lead guitar. “In the empty lot where the ladies play blindman’s bluff with the key chain / And the all-night girls they whisper of escapades out on the ‘D’ train / We can hear the night watchman click his flashlight / Ask himself if it’s him or them that’s really insane / Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near / She’s delicate and seems like the mirror / But she just makes it all too concise and too clear / That Johanna’s not here / The ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face / Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place.” If ever a line could evoke an image from fine art, say the works of Francis Bacon, it is that one about how “the ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face”. Beautiful stuff! “Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously / He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously / And when bringing her name up / He speaks of a farewell kiss to me / He’s sure got a lotta gall to be so useless and all / Muttering small talk at the wall while I’m in the hall / How can I explain? / Oh, it’s so hard to get on / And these visions of Johanna, they kept me up past the dawn.” As the song progresses, so the lead guitar clacks a little more urgently, while the organ simmers alongside. Notable between verses is not only the harmonica, but also the haunting touch of cymbals, which offer welcome relief from the word-rich lyrics. And meaning rich. Take this next verse, which is an absolute classic: “Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial / Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while / But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues / You can tell by the way she smiles / See the primitive wallflower freeze / When the jelly-faced women all sneeze / Hear the one with the mustache say, ‘Jeeze / I can’t find my knees’ / Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule / But these visions of Johanna, they make it all seem so cruel.” And all the time it is that mesmerizing Dylan voice that propagates these lines, inexorably, ineluctably, like a flood of images that leave your mind reeling. “The peddler now speaks to the countess who’s pretending to care for him / Sayin’, ‘Name me someone that’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him’ / But like Louise always says / ‘Ya can’t look at much, can ya man?’ / As she, herself, prepares for him / And Madonna, she still has not showed / We see this empty cage now corrode / Where her cape of the stage once had flowed / The fiddler, he now steps to the road / He writes ev’rything’s been returned which was owed / On the back of the fish truck that loads / While my conscience explodes / The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain / And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain.” Again, it is that last line of each verse which serves as a resting place, a port offering shelter from the storm of verbal gymnastics, as occurred with several epics on the previous two albums. What did it mean? Critic Heylin is quoted by Wikipedia as saying it was perhaps his “most perfect composition. The song’s imagery is bone-chillingly precise, even as its subject matter, the omnipresent yet physically absent Johanna, hovers nebulously out of reach”. I wish I’d said that.
After this brooding monster of a song – in the best possible sense – One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later) offers some lighter respite. It kicks off with great harmonica and electric guitar, a lilting rock song, before slowing somewhat for those immortal opening words: “I didn’t mean to treat you so bad / You shouldn’t take it so personal / I didn’t mean to make you so sad / You just happened to be there, that’s all / When I saw you say ‘goodbye’ to your friends and smile / I thought that it was well understood / That you’d be comin’ back in a little while / I didn’t know that you were sayin’ ‘goodbye’ for good.” This takes me right back to my youth, as the tempo picks up for the assault of the chorus: “But, sooner or later, one of us must know / You just did what you’re supposed to do / Sooner or later, one of us must know / That I really did try to get close to you.” Again, it is classic Dylan vocals, unashamedly so, with organ and piano, not to mention some superb bass, ratcheting up the interest. “I couldn’t see what you could show me / Your scarf had kept your mouth well hid / I couldn’t see how you could know me / But you said you knew me and I believed you did / When you whispered in my ear / And asked me if I was leavin’ with you or her / I didn’t realize just what I did hear / I didn’t realize how young you were.” After the chorus, another gem of a verse: “I couldn’t see when it started snowin’ / Your voice was all that I heard / I couldn’t see where we were goin’ / But you said you knew an’ I took your word / And then you told me later, as I apologized / That you were just kiddin’ me, you weren’t really from the farm / An’ I told you, as you clawed out my eyes / That I never really meant to do you any harm.”
Side 2 starts with another absolute classic, I Want You, the fast-paced electric lead guitar clipping out the tune against drums, bass and harmonica. Again, the opening lines are like jewels, and the song is a jam-packed treasure chest. “The guilty undertaker sighs, / The lonesome organ grinder cries, / The silver saxophones say I should refuse you. / The cracked bells and washed-out horns / Blow into my face with scorn, / But it’s not that way, / I wasn’t born to lose you.” Everything conspires against this union, but he has needs, and in the chorus he gives full vent to them: “I want you, I want you, / I want you so bad, / Honey, I want you.” So after the musical instruments failed to convince him, who or what else tries? “The drunken politician leaps / Upon the street where mothers weep / And the saviors who are fast asleep, / They wait for you. / And I wait for them to interrupt / Me drinkin’ from my broken cup / And ask me to / Open up the gate for you. / I want you, I want you, / I want you so bad, / Honey, I want you.” That remains as unfathomable as ever. What of the next verse? “Now all my fathers, they’ve gone down / True love they’ve been without it. / But all their daughters put me down / ’Cause I don’t think about it.” This short verse is followed with: “Well, I return to the Queen of Spades / And talk with my chambermaid. / She knows that I’m not afraid / To look at her. / She is good to me / And there’s nothing she doesn’t see. / She knows where I’d like to be / But it doesn’t matter. / I want you, I want you, / I want you so bad, / Honey, I want you.” Is the imagery becoming too obscure altogether? “Now your dancing child with his Chinese suit, / He spoke to me, I took his flute./ No, I wasn’t very cute to him, / Was I? / But I did it, though, because he lied / Because he took you for a ride / And because time was on his side / And because I . . . / I want you, I want you, / I want you so bad, / Honey, I want you.” Another quirky, unforgettable slice of Dylanese.
Only Dylan could get away with calling a song “Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again”. As with his other epics, it is this line which provides the base to which he returns in each meandering, image-laden verse during the 7:06-minute song. Acoustic guitar and harmonica launch the song, but it soon acquires a rock idiom as the bass and lead guitars kicks in. I can only imagine Mark Knoffler heard this song, because there is something of his technique in the clipped bursts of lead guitar alongside great organ and the lightly tapped cymbal between verses. It is all about that distinctive musical texture Dylan was seeking, and really achieved on this song. And again the Dylan sense of humour is much to the fore. “Oh, the ragman draws circles / Up and down the block. / I’d ask him what the matter was / But I know that he don’t talk. / And the ladies treat me kindly / And furnish me with tape, / But deep inside my heart / I know I can’t escape.” Then that plaintive cry of a chorus: “Oh, Mama, can this really be the end, / To be stuck inside of
After that, you’d expect some respite. But Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat, while lighter, remains crazily odd. That thin, mercury electric guitar sound Dylan spoke of launches this song, alongside piano, bass and drums. I suspect the Velvet Underground may have been particularly impressed by this sound. “Well, I see you got your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat / Yes, I see you got your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat / Well, you must tell me, baby / How your head feels under somethin’ like that / Under your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat.” This was an inevitable progression for Dylan. Blues, rock, folk, jazz? Who knows? He just mixed it all up, and came out with an original sound no one could have anticipated. “Well, you look so pretty in it / Honey, can I jump on it sometime? / Yes, I just wanna see / If it’s really that expensive kind / You know it balances on your head / Just like a mattress balances / On a bottle of wine / Your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat.” That was another line I can recall my brothers and I lapping up, that image of a mattress balancing on a bottle of wine. “Well, if you wanna see the sun rise / Honey, I know where / We’ll go out and see it sometime / We’ll both just sit there and stare / Me with my belt / Wrapped around my head / And you just sittin’ there / In your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat.” By using the word, “well”, at the start of each verse, he gives the impression of chatting the girl up. It’s like saying, “So, where did you go to school ….” Here’s his next take: “Well, I asked the doctor if I could see you / It’s bad for your health, he said / Yes, I disobeyed his orders / I came to see you / But I found him there instead / You know, I don’t mind him cheatin’ on me / But I sure wish he’d take that off his head / Your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat.” How often do we not have to bury our hurts in humour? “Well, I see you got a new boyfriend / You know, I never seen him before / Well, I saw him / Makin’ love to you / You forgot to close the garage door / You might think he loves you for your money / But I know what he really loves you for / It’s your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat.”
After all that, one really did need a break, and Just Like A Woman provided it. Finally, the verbal antics were sedated somewhat. Drums and harmonica, acoustic guitar, organ, all unite to provide a lovely, full sound on this iconic Dylan song. But the real hallmark of its success is the acoustic lead guitar which is plucked throughout. No Dylanphile exists who isn’t moved by the opening lines to this song: “Nobody feels any pain / Tonight as I stand inside the rain / Ev’rybody knows / That Baby’s got new clothes / But lately I see her ribbons and her bows / Have fallen from her curls.” Then that famous chorus: “She takes just like a woman, yes, she does / She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does / And she aches just like a woman / But she breaks just like a little girl.” I have to admit that in my juvenile obsession with sex (does one ever lose it?) I wondered about that last line. What did he mean by breaks? When you’re a teenage virgin, the term “break her virginity” is a mantra boys use. Clearly, though, if she makes love just like a woman, she would not still be a virgin… “Queen Mary, she’s my friend / Yes, I believe I’ll go see her again / Nobody has to guess / That Baby can’t be blessed / Till she sees finally that she’s like all the rest / With her fog, her amphetamine and her pearls.” And then that chorus again. Even Dylan’s love songs have layers of meaning that set them way apart. Here, though, the mood changes: “It was raining from the first / And I was dying there of thirst / So I came in here / And your long-time curse hurts / But what’s worse / Is this pain in here / I can’t stay in here / Ain’t it clear that –” Then it’s back to the standard format: “I just can’t fit / Yes, I believe it’s time for us to quit / When we meet again / Introduced as friends / Please don’t let on that you knew me when / I was hungry and it was your world.” Then that famous chorus, followed by some more incisive harmonica, closes the classic. “Ah, you fake just like a woman, yes, you do / You make love just like a woman, yes, you do / Then you ache just like a woman / But you break just like a little girl.”
Now most of us would be happy with our lot. That’s a lot of music, a billion ideas wrapped in music. But there are still two sides to go! Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine). Indeed, that is the lengthy title of one of the shortest songs on the album, which opens Side 3. Fast-paced, with drums, harmonica, guitars and, it seems, horns, this was another little tour de force. “You say you love me, / And you’re thinkin’ of me, / But you know you could be wrong. / You say you told me, / That you wanna hold me, / But you know you’re not that strong. / I just can’t do what I done before, / I just can’t beg you any more. / I’m gonna let you pass, / And I’ll go last. / And time will tell just who has fell, / And who’s been left behind, / When you go your way and I go mine.” This was a real rock ripper which Dylan would use to good effect in his concert tours down the years. This time it’s the use of simple lyrics, of the word “and”, that creates the impetus. “You say you disturb me, / And you don’t deserve me, / But you know sometimes you lie. / You say you’re shakin’, / And you’re always achin’, / But you know how hard you try. / Sometimes it gets so hard to care, / You can’t be this way everywhere. / I’m gonna let you pass, / And I’ll go last. / And time will tell just who has fell, / And who’s been left behind, / When you go your way and I go mine.” As with all Dylan’s best constructed shorter songs, there has to be a change of mood about here, and so there is. “The judge, he bears a grudge, / He’s gonna ha-rm you. / But he’s badly built, / And he walks on stilts, / Watch out he don’t fall on you.” After that bit of typically Dylan craziness, the first verse is repeated.
I only recently met someone called Achilles. He was of Greek extraction, but I had not realized that this name from mythology was still used. Anyway, what on earth was Temporary Like Achilles about, considering that it smacks of bad English – temporarily, surely? Well it’s a slow blues, with piano, harmonica and guitar – yes that mercury electric type – which provide the mellow mood. But who among us can recall the lyrics? The first few words will jog that memory. “Standing on your window, honey, / Yes, I've been here before. / Feeling so harmless, / I’m looking at your second door. / How come you don’t send me no regards? / You know I want your lovin’, / Honey, why are you so hard?” It has a Romeo and Juliet ring to it. “Kneeling ’neath your ceiling, / Yes, I guess I’ll be here for a while. / I’m tryin’ to read your portrait, but, / I’m helpless, like a rich man’s child. / How come you send someone out to have me barred? / You know I want your lovin’, / Honey, why are you so hard?” How helpless is a rich man’s child? Then, that inevitable change of pace and tone: “Like a poor fool in his prime, / Yes, I know you can hear me walk, / But is your heart made out of stone, or is it lime, / Or is it just solid rock?” Then back to that resigned fatalism. “Well, I rush into your hallway, / Lean against your velvet door. / I watch upon your scorpion / Who crawls across your circus floor. / Just what do you think you have to guard? / You know I want your lovin’, / Honey, but you’re so hard.” Ah, and finally we get to Achilles. “Achilles is in your alleyway, / He don’t want me here, / He does brag. / He’s pointing to the sky / And he’s hungry, like a man in drag. / How come you get someone like him to be your guard? / You know I want your lovin’, / Honey, but you’re so hard.” These shorter “love songs” are among Dylan’s finest. There is no showy use of language, just a few short concepts, neatly packaged.
A similar-length song, Absolutely Sweet Marie (4:48 minutes) is very different in technique, again recalling the Velvet Underground with its organ and lead guitar fired off loudly and proudly, with a suitably muffled, distorted ambience. This is another of those Dylan classics, packed with wonderful imagery and ideas. “Well, your railroad gate, you know I just can’t jump it / Sometimes it gets so hard, you see / I’m just sitting here beating on my trumpet / With all these promises you left for me / But where are you tonight, sweet Marie?” You can almost feel the Velvet Underground thrust of it. “Well, I waited for you when I was half sick / Yes, I waited for you when you hated me / Well, I waited for you inside of the frozen traffic / When you knew I had some other place to be / Now, where are you tonight, sweet Marie?” Then one of those wonderfully Dylanish interludes: “Well, anybody can be just like me, obviously / But then, now again, not too many can be like you, fortunately.” Then he’s up on that high horse again. “Well, six white horses that you did promise / Were fin’lly delivered down to the penitentiary / But to live outside the law, you must be honest / I know you always say that you agree / But where are you tonight, sweet Marie?” Explain the logic in that? Again, though, Dylan’s mind is travelling. “Well, I don’t know how it happened / But the river-boat captain, he knows my fate / But ev’rybody else, even yourself / They’re just gonna have to wait. / Well, I got the fever down in my pockets / The Persian drunkard, he follows me / Yes, I can take him to your house but I can’t unlock it / You see, you forgot to leave me with the key / Oh, where are you tonight, sweet Marie?” This seems to be a fevered yearning for one sweet girl. “Now, I been in jail when all my mail showed / That a man can’t give his address out to bad company / And now I stand here lookin’ at your yellow railroad / In the ruins of your balcony / Wond’ring where you are tonight, sweet Marie.” If it means anything, only Dylan really knows. But the fact is it sounds so damned impressive? A man can’t give his address out to bad company. Precisely, even a convict can’t.
These aren’t just songs to fill an album. Each is a Dylan original, lavished with all the thought and concentration that that entails. So 4th Time Around is not going to be some forgettable “filler” dashed off in a few minutes. It is, in fact, another (how many more can he possibly do) unique Dylan song with all that implies in terms of lyrics and melody. Oh and don’t forget that there is some finger-picked acoustic lead guitar on here that is immaculate. It runs parallel to the strummed version, some sublime harmonica and understated bass and drums. “When she said, / ‘Don’t waste your words, they’re just lies,’ / I cried she was deaf. / And she worked on my face until breaking my eyes, / Then said, ‘What else you got left?’ / It was then that I got up to leave / But she said, ‘Don’t forget, / Everybody must give something back / For something they get.’” This song is characterized by short lines, the one leading into the next to form an unstoppable forward motion. Who cannot become absorbed in the logic of its structure? “I stood there and hummed, / I tapped on her drum and asked her how come. / And she buttoned her boot, / And straightened her suit, / Then she said, ‘Don’t get cute.’ / So I forced my hands in my pockets / And felt with my thumbs, / And gallantly handed her / My very last piece of gum.” There is a wonderful implied intimacy here, even when her riposte of “don’t get cute” is a far cry from the endearments he was probably hoping to hear. But of course he’s on the receiving end of a hiding, and only a masochist would thrive on this sort of treatment, though how many of us don’t become inured to abuse without realizing it? “She threw me outside, / I stood in the dirt where ev’ryone walked. / And after finding I’d / Forgotten my shirt, / I went back and knocked. / I waited in the hallway, she went to get it, / And I tried to make sense / Out of that picture of you in your wheelchair / That leaned up against . . .” And here one verse rolls into the next: “Her Jamaican rum / And when she did come, I asked her for some. / She said, ‘No, dear.’ / I said, ‘Your words aren’t clear, / You’d better spit out your gum.’ / She screamed till her face got so red / Then she fell on the floor, / And I covered her up and then / Thought I’d go look through her drawer.” Again, the verses are continuous? “And, when I was through / I filled up my shoe / And brought it to you. / And you, you took me in, / You loved me then / You didn’t waste time. / And I, I never took much, / I never asked for your crutch. / Now don’t ask for mine.” Phew! Blooming brilliant!
Another number is found in the title of the album’s penultimate track, Obviously 5 Believers. From the gentle, folk-like quality of the previous song, we are again faced with some serious blues-rock, the sharp lead guitar driven along by a fast-paced rhythm section. And, between verses, Dylan gives full vent to the upper ranges of the harmonica in a style which recalled the best of King Biscuit Boy, a guy who we discovered on one magical album. There is a Beatles quality to this song, as there was to its predecessor, as if the geniuses from both sides of the
Yo’ mama not to worry because / They’re just my friends.” Finally, after another incredible bit of Dylan fun, the first verse is repeated and the song winds down to the sound of shrill lead guitar and harmonica which lances the cobwebs from the old brain.
But it is the final track, all 11:43 minutes of it, which really calms and soothes after an hour of such musical and lyrical intensity you need a hammock for your head. And that is what Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands provides. I often think about it as a folk-based song, but in reality it is electric, though with an apparent undertow of acoustic guitar. A tapped drum, mellow bass, piano and harmonica get this final epic under way. I’ve praised the opening lines of many of his previous songs, but these probably take the honours in terms of setting the tone and demanding your undivided attention. I have to confess to a life of trying to fathom what, precisely, this was all about. And I suppose that is in the nature of the best art. It is never ever quite attainable. “With your mercury mouth in the missionary times, / And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes, / And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes, / Oh, who among them do they think could bury you? / With your pockets well protected at last, / And your streetcar visions which you place on the grass, / And your flesh like silk, and your face like glass, / Who among them do they think could carry you? / Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands, / Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes, / My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums, / Should I leave them by your gate, / Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?” Then that lonesome organ sighs gently, as you digest phrases like “flesh like silk” and “eyes like smoke”, and you wonder about the significance of his Arabian drums. “With your sheets like metal and your belt like lace, / And your deck of cards missing the jack and the ace, / And your basement clothes and your hollow face, / Who among them can think he could outguess you? / With your silhouette when the sunlight dims / Into your eyes where the moonlight swims, / And your match-book songs and your gypsy hymns, / Who among them would try to impress you? / Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands, / Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes, / My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums, / Should I leave them by your gate, / Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?” Who, if not a truly great poet, can write of “eyes where the moonlight swims”? And only a true poet would start to bring in figures from ancient literature, without batting an eyelid. “The kings of Tyrus with their convict list / Are waiting in line for their geranium kiss, / And you wouldn’t know it would happen like this, / But who among them really wants just to kiss you? / With your childhood flames on your midnight rug, / And your Spanish manners and your mother’s drugs, / And your cowboy mouth and your curfew plugs, / Who among them do you think could resist you? / Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands, / Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes, / My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums, / Should I leave them by your gate, / Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?” The song just builds and builds through each verse. “Oh, the farmers and the businessmen, they all did decide / To show you the dead angels that they used to hide. / But why did they pick you to sympathize with their side? / Oh, how could they ever mistake you? / They wished you’d accepted the blame for the farm, / But with the sea at your feet and the phony false alarm, / And with the child of a hoodlum wrapped up in your arms, / How could they ever, ever persuade you? / Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands, / Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes, / My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums, / Should I leave them by your gate, / Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?” Then that final verse: “With your sheet-metal memory of Cannery Row, / And your magazine-husband who one day just had to go, / And your gentleness now, which you just can’t help but show, / Who among them do you think would employ you? / Now you stand with your thief, you’re on his parole / With your holy medallion which your fingertips fold, / And your saintlike face and your ghostlike soul, / Oh, who among them do you think could destroy you / Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands, / Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes, / My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums, / Should I leave them by your gate, / Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?” I do wonder whether parole shouldn’t be payroll, though I do think it sounds like the former in the song. Of course it wouldn’t be Dylan if the song didn’t end with a virtuoso piece of harmonica work, before the song finally fades, bringing to an end of the greatest albums of all time.
The album was a commercial success, says Wikipedia, and also a great critical success, with David Marsh, for Rolling Stone, calling it one of Dylan’s “best albums, and (one) of the greatest in the history of rock & roll”. As usual, critic Tim Riley is more erudite: “A sprawling abstraction of eccentric blues revisionism, Blonde on Blonde confirms Dylan’s stature as the greatest American rock presence since Elvis Presley,” he wrote. The shell-shocked feeling the album leaves you with is captured in Greil Marcus’s view of the album as “the sound of a man trying to stand up in a drunken boat, and, for the moment, succeeding. His (Dylan’s) tone is sardonic, scared, threatening, as if he’d awakened after paying all his debts to find that nothing was settled”. While many polls have ranked it high, in 2003 Rolling Stone placed it at Number 9 in its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Now that’s talking.
Interestingly, Dylan on stage was a different proposition to him in the studio. While he failed to work well with the Hawks (The Band) in the studio, they became his “most celebrated touring band”, notes Wikipedia. It was with them that he toured just before the album’s release in mid-May, 1966.
John Wesley Harding
The grey cover of John Wesley Harding, Dylan’s eighth studio album, which was released in 1967, his first since his 1966 motorbike accident, in a way reflects its low-key nature. Even Dylan reportedly wanted little fanfare or promotion. But the album turned out to be one of his greatest commercial successes.
We weren’t conscious of it at the time, but the Wikipedia articles note that as usual Dylan was bucking the system. In a year when the Beatles and Stones brought out their most surreal, psychedelic albums – St Peppers and Their Satanic Majesties Request – he had again ditched the electric sound and reverted to a simple, country-folk style with acoustic guitar and harmonica and just low-key bass and drums backing. Significantly, his mentor Woody Guthrie had died just before he started the very short recording process – it was done in
If the album was low-key, then it took one Jimi Hendrix, the following year, to change all that when he recorded a version of All Along The Watchtower which became a massive hit, showcasing yet again his uncanny ability to completely overhaul a song and tie it up in the alchemy of his unique guitarwork. However, I can recall many hours spent listening to the mellow melodies contained on this album. And it is interesting to note, on Wikipedia, just how he came to write those songs, many of which apparently have arcane Biblical references.
The title track is about a guy called John Wesley Hardin, a
All but two of the songs were written before being put to music and, according to the critics, it shows, with Down Along The Cove and I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight having more cheerful lyrics, accentuated by the use of pedal steel guitar.
You have to have a fair knowledge of
Joan Baez’s version of I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill, a labour union song, became ingrained in our consciousness after we heard the
Another of his narrative songs, All Along The Watchtower is also, we are told, thick with Biblical allusions. But for me, overpowered by the Hendrix version, it is those opening lines which set the scene: “There must be some kinda way outa here, said the joker to the thief / There’s too much confusion here, I can’t get no relief...” We are told that it was inspired by a section in Isaiah dealing with the fall of
To me, The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest was a long and interesting tale. The song says the two “were the best of friends / So when Frankie needed money one day, Judas quickly pulled out a roll of tens”. And so the story unfolds, as does the album, incorporating other pleasant story ballads with enigmatic lyrics, like Drifter’s Escape, Dear Landlord, I Am A Lonesome Hobo, I Pity The Poor Immigrant, and then those two more lyrical songs, Down Along The Cove and I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight. To me this is a good album, but not a great one. It lacks the humour and delightful absurdity of the electric albums, and sets the scene for his dabbling in country-rock on Nashville Skyline which, again, was a pleasant album, but definitely not one of his best.
How ironic that at a time when the youth were mobilizing across
It was a time of upheaval in the
I enjoyed the duet with Cash when the album first came out, but now it just irritates me. Cash obviously didn’t know the lines very well and sometimes the two sing different words, which is quite embarrassing. Personally, I don’t think Dylan was meant to work with Cash.
While the record is short – it runs to just 27 minutes and 14 seconds – there is still some quality stuff here. One of the hits from the album was I Threw It All Away, which continues from John Wesley Harding, in Dylan’s new writing style. Here the lines are short and each word counts – with all sense of the surreal jettisoned. But he can still be very poetic, as in: “Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand / And rivers that ran through ev’ry day / I must have been mad / I never knew what I had / Until I threw it all away”. It is strange, but one could hear these lyrics over and again without thinking about them. It is only when you write them down that their impact starts to hit home.
Of course as teens we loved the images contained in Lay Lady Lay (“lay across my big brass bed”), which became a big hit single. There was also some fun had with Peggy Day: “I’d love to spend the night with Peggy Day.” One More Night, Tell Me That It Isn’t True, Country Pie and Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You were all enjoyable songs, while he also included an up-tempo instrumental, Nashville Skyline Rag.
Interesting snippets from Wikipedia include an explanation for the spoken words before “To Be Alone With You”, which helped give the album its laid-back air. Dylan asks: “Is it rolling, Bob?” He was evidently speaking to Bob Johnston, the producer, and wanted to know if the tape was rolling.
Was it a great album? Wikipedia quotes Tim Souster of the BBC’s Listener magazine: “One can’t help feeling something is missing. Isn’t this idyllic country landscape (simply) too good to be true?”
Many musicians and groups, like the Beatles did, may have bowed out about now, after a decade or so in the public eye. What Dylan did, and he speaks about it in his autobiography, Chronicles, was to lay a few red herrings across the track. He wanted commercial success and a degree of privacy – a kind of have your cake and eat it scenario. His next album would help to chase away the hordes – who that summer descended in their hundreds of thousands on Woodstock for a festival in his back yard, as it were, which Dylan – whose home was nearby – avoided like the plague.
Self Portrait, a country rock album, was released in 1970 and, ironically, contains very few original Bob Dylan compositions. His 10th studio album, it was also his second double album – and we actually lapped it up when it came out. Well I know I did. So what if there very few Dylan originals? These were songs chosen by Dylan, and who better to select stuff than the maestro? So we got into this album too, and it offered some fine rewards. The critics panned it, according to Wikipedia, with the most deprecating response coming from Rolling Stone critic Greil Marcus, who opened his review with the words: “What is this shit?”
While loads have been written about this album, it is interesting to note that about 30 musicians worked on it. And it includes many songs without which the Dylan oeuvre would be incomplete. Even the opening track, All The Tired Horses, which features female choral singing, is intrinsically Dylanesque. Lyrically minimalist, it includes just the two lines: “All the tired horses in the sun / How’m I supposed to get any ridin’ done? Hmm.” For all these years I’ve been hearing, in that second line, something about “mama’s gonna blah blah”. Shows how invaluable the internet is. While this may have been obscure stuff, so what? It was still an album by Dylan in his prime. I haven’t heard this album for decades, but there are still songs here that I can readily recall, like Alberta, Days of ’49, Early Morning Rain (a Gordon Lightfoot composition), Let It Be Me, the beautiful Copper Kettle, Gotta Travel On, his version of Paul Simon’s The Boxer (where will you hear that again?), and even Bob singing The Mighty Quinn (which others had made famous, and we’d never heard by him before). I see, from Wikipedia, that this version of The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo) was recorded live on August 31, 1969, at the Isle of Wight Festival, which makes it a seminal occasion in its own right. Ever wondered what those words were, because there was much speculation that this was all about drugs? “Everybody’s building the big ships and boats / Some are building monuments, others jotting down notes / Everybody’s in despair, every girl and boy / But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here everybody’s gonna jump for joy.” Sounds like the Eskimo – now a politically incorrect term – had some kind of palliative, or opiate, doesn’t it? Here’s the famous chorus: “Oh come all without, come all within / You’ll not see nothing like the mighty Quinn / Come all without, come all within / You’ll not see nothing like the mighty Quinn.” Now for all these years I’d been hearing “come on without, come on within”, but it seems I was wrong. “Oh you know I like to do just like the rest / You know I like my sugar sweet but guarding fumes and making haste / You know it ain’t my cup of meat / Everybody’s out the trees, feeding pigeons all under the limb / But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here the pigeons gonna run to him.” After that chorus, the final verse goes: “A cat’s meow and a cow’s moo to you know I, I could recite them all / Just tell me where it hurts you, honey, and I’ll tell you who to call / Nobody can get asleep, there’s someone on everybody’s toes / When Quinn the Eskimo gets here everybody’s gonna want to doze.” And to think this is a song Dylan didn’t even have on an album up till now!
It is interesting that Wikipedia quotes critic Clinton Heylin as saying that Copper Kettle is “one of the most affecting performances in Dylan’s entire canon”, while Tim Riley is quoted as calling it “an ingenious Appalachian Zygote for rock attitudes, the hidden source of John Wesley Harding’s shadows”.
Another interesting quote comes from Dylan when Rolling Stone magazine tried to find out in 1984 why on earth he did the album. Rejecting those who saw him as their representative, he added: “People need a leader more than a leader needs people, really. I mean, anybody can step up and be a leader, if he’s got the people there that want one. I didn’t want that, though.” As they say, it makes you think.
I don’t recall if the cover “art” on the album was credited to Dylan, but in the same interview, quoted by Wikipedia, he makes it clear it was his, but it was not to be taken seriously. Explaining that at that point they had no title for the album, he said: “I knew somebody who had some paints and a square canvas, and I did the cover up in about five minutes. And I said, “Well, I’m gonna call this album Self Portrait.”
New Morning, which was released in my first year in high school, 1970, is an album I’d love to hear again. It has been some three decades since it was part of my regular music diet. I recall sitting in a large room in the home of Nico Yiangu, a Lebanese, I think, guy whose parents owned a large house on the banks of the
As I’ve said, it’s been a long time, but some lines from this album still stand out. “If dogs run free, why can’t we, far across the sweeping plains?” In fact I misremembered. The lines are: “If dogs run free, then why not we / Across the swooping plain?” It was often spoken poetry, set to gentle folk-rock, with If Not For You giving him commercial success, especially when it was covered by George Harrison, who included it on his double album, All Things Must Pass, and later by Olivia Newton-John. Interestingly,
Day Of The Locusts was inspired by Dylan’s experience when he went to
There is a timeless, country feel to this album, captured best in the next track, Time Passes Slowly: “Time passes slowly up here in the mountains, / We sit beside bridges and walk beside fountains, / Catch the wild fishes that float through the stream, / Time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream.” This is almost a sequel to Day Of The Locusts, as he find escape and release in nature. “Once I had a sweetheart, she was fine and good-lookin’, / We sat in her kitchen while her mama was cookin’, / Stared out the window to the stars high above, / Time passes slowly when you’re searchin' for love.” Then it’s fond memories of early love. “Ain’t no reason to go in a wagon to town, / Ain’t no reason to go to the fair. / Ain’t no reason to go up, ain’t no reason to go down, / Ain’t no reason to go anywhere.” After that interlude of happy contentment, the final verse: “Time passes slowly up here in the daylight, / We stare straight ahead and try so hard to stay right, / Like the red rose of summer that blooms in the day, / Time passes slowly and fades away.”
It is interesting to note that three of the best songs, according to Dylan’s biography Chronicles, were originally written for a play by poet Archibald MacLeish, but were later withdrawn by Dylan. These were New Morning, Time Passes Slowly and Father Of Night – all lovely, evocative songs.
Dylan wrote Went To See The Gypsy, according to Wikipedia, after his first meeting with Elvis Presley, something we would have cared little about at the time, since Elvis was pretty well ignored by us. The Wikipedia notes do jog the memory though, as they say the song does reference his childhood by referring to a “little
“Winterlude, Winterlude my little apple”. Did he say apple? Winterlude was evidently the name of a girl, who was being addressed in this humorous love song. Yeah, now I recall: “Winterlude, this dude thinks you’re fine”. It wasn’t vintage Dylan, but it showed he was still very much on the right tracks. And there wasn’t even blood on them – yet. By the way, it is interesting to note that one Dave Bromberg played electric guitar and dobro on this album. He would later become one of our favourite musicians. A lyric search reveals she was indeed a “little apple”. “Winterlude, Winterlude, oh darlin’, / Winterlude by the road tonight. / Tonight there will be no quarrelin’, / Ev’rything is gonna be all right. / Oh, I see by the angel beside me / That love has a reason to shine. / You’re the one I adore, come over here and give me more, / Then Winterlude, this dude thinks you’re fine.” And then the apple reference: “Winterlude, Winterlude, my little apple, / Winterlude by the corn in the field, / Winterlude, let’s go down to the chapel, / Then come back and cook up a meal. / Well, come out when the skating rink glistens / By the sun, near the old crossroads sign. / The snow is so cold, but our love can be bold, / Winterlude, don’t be rude, please be mine.” It’s certainly not a Dylan classic, with the odd obviously forced rhyme, but the song still has a magic that is inescapable. “Winterlude, Winterlude, my little daisy, / Winterlude by the telephone wire, / Winterlude, it’s makin’ me lazy, / Come on, sit by the logs in the fire. / The moonlight reflects from the window / Where the snowflakes, they cover the sand. / Come out tonight, ev’rything will be tight, / Winterlude, this dude thinks you’re grand.”
Dylan spoke the words, if I recall, of If Dogs Run Free. “If dogs run free, then why not we / Across the swooping plain? / My ears hear a symphony / Of two mules, trains and rain. / The best is always yet to come, / That’s what they explain to me. / Just do your thing, you’ll be king, / If dogs run free.” Nice. “If dogs run free, why not me / Across the swamp of time? / My mind weaves a symphony / And tapestry of rhyme. / Oh, winds which rush my tale to thee / So it may flow and be, / To each his own, it’s all unknown, / If dogs run free.” What a change from the dense imagery of a few years earlier. Suddenly, less is more; a few inspired brushstrokes, the deft flourishes of the master. “If dogs run free, then what must be, / Must be, and that is all. / True love can make a blade of grass / Stand up straight and tall. / In harmony with the cosmic sea, / True love needs no company, / It can cure the soul, it can make it whole, / If dogs run free.” Though, given his love hassles, he might as easily have said “if pigs fly”.
The title track, New Morning, was a gem, accessible as a gentle folk-rock song, but again steeped in soothing, bucolic warmth. “Can’t you hear that rooster crowin’? / Rabbit runnin’ down across the road / Underneath the bridge where the water flowed through / So happy just to see you smile / Underneath the sky of blue / On this new morning, new morning / On this new morning with you.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to escape into a rural retreat where everything is just slow-paced and perfect? Of course it’s a utopian dream, but in all of us I believe there is a hankering back to such a lifestyle which some among our ancestors might have had at one time, maybe for a few years, in the past few millennia. “Can’t you hear that motor turnin’? / Automobile comin’ into style / Comin’ down the road for a country mile or two / So happy just to see you smile / Underneath the sky of blue / On this new morning, new morning / On this new morning with you.” A short verse, “The night passed away so quickly / It always does when you’re with me”, before the final few lines: “Can’t you feel that sun a-shinin’? / Ground hog runnin’ by the country stream / This must be the day that all of my dreams come true / So happy just to be alive / Underneath the sky of blue / On this new morning, new morning / On this new morning with you.”
Dylan could be relied upon to devise new forms and structures for his songs at the drop of the proverbial hat. Simplicity was again the key with Sign On The Window. “Sign on the window says ‘Lonely’, / Sign on the door said ‘No Company Allowed’, / Sign on the street says ‘Y’ Don’t Own Me’, / Sign on the porch says ‘Three’s A Crowd’, / Sign on the porch says ‘Three’s A Crowd’.” Isn’t that a clever way of sketching the scene? “Her and her boyfriend went to
There seemed to be something of Crosby Stills Nash and Young about One More Weekend. At the time CSNY were also getting steeped in country music, with Out On The Weekend encapsulating that sound. They even did a bit of slippin’ and slidin’. This song runs: “Slippin’ and slidin’ like a weasel on the run, / I’m lookin’ good to see you, yeah, and we can have some fun. / One more weekend, one more weekend with you, / One more weekend, one more weekend’ll do.” This is a new Dylan, happy just to be having fun. “Come on down to my ship, honey, ride on deck, / We’ll fly over the ocean just like you suspect. / One more weekend, one more weekend with you. / One more weekend, one more weekend’ll do.” In the Sixties he had lamented the loss of his carefree childhood days in Bob Dylan’s Dream. Now he seems momentarily to have rediscovered them. “We’ll fly the night away, / Hang out the whole next day, / Things will be okay, / You wait and see. / We’ll go someplace unknown, / Leave all the children home, / Honey, why not go alone / Just you and me.” And the pleasures just continue: “Comin’ and goin’ like a rabbit in the wood, / I’m happy just to see you, yeah, lookin’ so good. / One more weekend, one more weekend with you, / One more weekend, one more weekend’ll do (yes, you will!).” All this talk of rabbits and woods gets one wondering if the song shouldn’t have been called One More (Dirty) Weekend. “Like a needle in a haystack, I’m gonna find you yet, / You’re the sweetest gone mama that this boy’s ever gonna get. / One more weekend, one more weekend with you, / One more weekend, one more weekend’ll do.”
Dylan’s obvious need to escape the attentions of an intrusive media and global fan base is summed up in the quietly assertive, The Man in Me: “The man in me will do nearly any task, / And as for compensation, there’s little he would ask. / Take a woman like you / To get through to the man in me.” Initially, it looks like just another love song. “Storm clouds are raging all around my door, / I think to myself I might not take it any more. / Take a woman like your kind / To find the man in me.” He clearly needed female support. “But, oh, what a wonderful feeling / Just to know that you are near, / Sets my heart a-reeling / From my toes up to my ears.” But then that need for space: “The man in me will hide sometimes to keep from bein’ seen, / But that’s just because he doesn’t want to turn into some machine. / Took a woman like you / To get through to the man in me.”
And what of Three Angels? “Three angels up above the street, / Each one playing a horn, / Dressed in green robes with wings that stick out, / They’ve been there since Christmas morn. / The wildest cat from
I recently was watching some relatively obscure American movie on television, when what song should suddenly form part of the soundtrack, but the beautiful Father of Night, sung by Dylan himself. It was the first time I had heard it in over 30 years. “Father of night, Father of day, / Father, who taketh the darkness away, / Father, who teacheth the bird to fly, / Builder of rainbows up in the sky, / Father of loneliness and pain, / Father of love and Father of rain.” Who’s to say, should Christianity survive another century, whether this will not be a hymn sung in churches around the world. “Father of day, Father of night, / Father of black, Father of white, / Father, who build the mountain so high, / Who shapeth the cloud up in the sky, / Father of time, Father of dreams, / Father, who turneth the rivers and streams.” It certainly bears all the hallmarks of a great modern song of praise. “Father of grain, Father of wheat, / Father of cold and Father of heat, / Father of air and Father of trees, / Who dwells in our hearts and our memories, / Father of minutes, Father of days, / Father of whom we most solemnly praise.”
By the way, the reason I’m so much more familiar with many of those major albums from the mid-1960s is that I reacquired them on CD in the 1990s – picked up for a steal from Musica at R33 a time. I even had Bringing It All Back Home, only to find when I did bring it home and opened it that there was no disc inside. They let me choose something else. Pity, since, as noted earlier, that’s an album I’d love to hear again.
Is poverty a mitigating circumstance in instances like this? I certainly can’t afford to buy in all these missing albums from the great archive of the Sixties and Seventies. So sometimes I will rely entirely on memory.
And I don’t recall the record, Dylan, at all. It was released in 1973 and was his last
On Planet Waves, I learn from Wikipedia, he worked with The Band, with whom he had had an on-off relationship in the mid- to late-1960s when they were known as The Hawks. This union was to be celebrated in the live album, Before The Flood (1974), which we had and was very much part of our lives. But not so Planet Waves. I wonder why? Interestingly, from Wikipedia I gather it was originally going to be called Ceremonies Of The Horsemen, a line from Love Minus Zero/No Limit, a song from 1965: “In ceremonies of the horsemen, even the pawn must hold a grudge.” Anyway, at the last minute Dylan rejected that name and opted for Planet Waves. And while the album, for us, remained distant, one song became something of an anthem for a generation which was not getting any younger. It was called Forever Young and, according to Wikipedia, was almost abandoned by Dylan after numerous unsuccessful takes. A slower version had evidently bowled all the other musicians over, but Dylan had been so offended by a visitor’s comment he had to be persuaded to include it on the album at all. And then, still not happy, Dylan got Levon Helm to play mandolin on an acoustic version of the song, with Rick Danko on fiddle – which was also included. Love to hear that! The critics quoted on Wikipedia say the album was dark, with a song like Dirge speaking of death (a post-motorbike accident anaylsis) and others exploring the breakdown of relationships. Sounds interesting. Here is Dylan territory still to be explored! And The Band’s performance is evidently excellent.
And that song, Forever Young? It was evidently written by Dylan, the father, for his children. “May God bless and keep you always, / May your wishes all come true, / May you always do for others / And let others do for you. / May you build a ladder to the stars / And climb on every rung, / May you stay forever young, / Forever young, forever young, / May you stay forever young.” It was a beautiful benediction. “May you grow up to be righteous, / May you grow up to be true, / May you always know the truth / And see the lights surrounding you. / May you always be courageous, / Stand upright and be strong, / May you stay forever young …” The final verse is equally inspired. “May your hands always be busy, / May your feet always be swift, / May you have a strong foundation / When the winds of changes shift. / May your heart always be joyful, / May your song always be sung, / May you stay forever young, / Forever young, forever young, / May you stay forever young.” It was an anthem for us for many years, but we did age.
Before The Flood
Before The Flood was released in 1974, my matric year and the year my father died after battling with heart problems, and general ill health. It became a fixture in our room as we abandoned dagga and started getting into the grog in a big way, with Friday afternoons usually seeing us planting the odd bottle of “mpalampal”, as the black guys outside “their” entrance to the apartheid bottle store at the Bonza Bay Hotel 100 metres from our home called Paarl Perle, the cheap white plonk we’d buy for a couple of rands a bottle. It was guaranteed babelaas stuff. But, with Before The Flood blaring away, and even the odd attempt at playing chess while pished, the afternoon would pass – and many of us would pass out.
I recently picked up a copy of this album at a second-hand shop in goodish nick for R20. But it somehow lacks the depth of the studio albums. Let’s see what Wikipedia says. Firstly, it notes that the title may have come from a novel by Yiddish writer Sholem Asch, whose son Dylan knew. Another theory was that it was being released before the flood of bootlegs from the 1974 tour hit the underground market.
The album contains 21 of Dylan’s best songs and the reviews were evidently fairly positive. But one writer, Robert Christgau, was particularly vocal in his support, saying that “at its best, this is the craziest and strongest rock and roll ever recorded”.
Blood On The Tracks
Blood On The Tracks, from 1975, I’ll always associate with my time at the
What I didn’t know was that the album is largely seen as reflecting the turmoil in his personal life, and in particular his estrangement from Sara Lownds. Why such a great album? It emerges that Dylan wanted to make an acoustic album; he wanted a return to his roots. He wanted an album with a traditional folk and bluegrass sound, and he surrounded himself with the musicians to do so. Having rejoined the
Much has been written about the merits and demerits of this album, with some critics saying the
I’ve just given this album a fresh listen – albeit that I only have a tape made from a not-too-well-preserved vinyl album, and a bit of the seminal final track, Shelter From The Storm is cut off in mid flight. Buckets Of Rain, one of the loveliest songs on the album, is missing altogether. The album comes across as a more self-assured, and therefore, laid-back Dylan. He seems happy with the music he’s making, with his voice and his lyrics. With the mix of musicians, there is also nice variety here. But, as Bill Wyman – quoted by Wikipedia – notes, this is not a happy album, although he considers it the “apogee of his career”. But Wyman says that, with 15 years of fame behind him and the failure of a decade-long marriage in front of him, it is true that Dylan on this album looks at the world through blood-spattered glasses. The losses he is singing about seem fatal/ his anger on songs like Idiot Wind is Lear-like”.
Tangled Up In Blue starts with fast-strummed acoustic guitar and some superb bass guitar, which is a hallmark of the album. This is another of those epic narrative songs, and it is only when you see the written lyrics that you realise just how long it is. But what was it all about? “Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’, / I was layin’ in bed / Wond’rin’ if she’d changed at all / If her hair was still red. / Her folks they said our lives together / Sure was gonna be rough / They never did like Mama’s homemade dress / Papa’s bankbook wasn’t big enough. / And I was standin’ on the side of the road / Rain fallin’ on my shoes / Heading out for the East Coast / Lord knows I’ve paid some dues getting’ through, / Tangled up in blue.” Is this a lad from the wrong side of the tracks, marrying “above his station”? I young man with in-laws bent on ridiculing him, a common problem with guys who can never quite meet the aspirations of doting parents. “She was married when we first met / Soon to be divorced / I helped her out of a jam, I guess, / But I used a little too much force. / We drove that car as far as we could / Abandoned it out West /
There is a distant, remote feel to this album. It does not have the same burning passion of his Sixties stuff, and as a result is more restful, despite the angst that often comes across.
Twist Of Fate starts off slowly, with acoustic guitar and more of that rolling bass. “They sat together in the park / As the evening sky grew dark, / She looked at him and he felt a spark tingle to his bones. / ’Twas then he felt alone and wished that he’d gone straight / And watched out for a simple twist of fate.” Again, Dylan relies on a catch phrase at the end of each verse, around which the tale is spun. “They walked along by the old canal / A little confused, I remember well / And stopped into a strange hotel with a neon burnin’ right. / He felt the heat of the night hit him like a freight train / Moving with a simple twist of fate.” It’s how he sings those last two words in the penultimate line that gives this song its thrust: “freeeeeeiiightt train”. “A saxophone someplace far off played / As she was walkin’ by the arcade. / As the light bust through a beat-up shade where he was wakin’ up, / She dropped a coin into the cup of a blind man at the gate / And forgot about a simple twist of fate.” These are the emotions which are so strong it must have been very difficult for Dylan to write about them. “He woke up, the room was bare / He didn’t see her anywhere. / He told himself he didn’t care, pushed the window open wide, / Felt an emptiness inside to which he just could not relate / Brought on by a simple twist of fate.” Is it just fate which drives us apart, or brings us together? How much is it also not an act of will? “He hears the ticking of the clocks / And walks along with a parrot that talks, / Hunts her down by the waterfront docks where the sailors all come in. / Maybe she’ll pick him out again, how long must he wait / Once more for a simple twist of fate.” Then the final verse: “People tell me it’s a sin / To know and feel too much within. / I still believe she was my twin, but I lost the ring. / She was born in spring, but I was born too late / Blame it on a simple twist of fate.” I can’t help feeling, reading that last verse, that Dylan was really forcing the rhymes there. Nonetheless, it’s still a cracking song.
The next track has the sound I think Dylan was really after on this album. You’re A Big Girl Now is a slow-paced gem, packed with some intricate acoustic guitar work, with the bass guitar again working almost as a rhythmic lead. The song also has pleasant echoes of the best of New Morning, and even something of the great work from the mid-1960s. There is some fancy piano and harmonica work too, while a more humble, less angst-ridden tone permeates the track. “Our conversation was short and sweet / It nearly swept me off-a my feet. / And I’m back in the rain, oh, oh, / And you are on dry land. / You made it there somehow / You’re a big girl now.” Nice to finally see the words and digest what was previously only heard as a song, without too much attention being paid to the lyrics. This next verse reminds me of New Morning. “Bird on the horizon, sittin’ on a fence, / He’s singin’ his song for me at his own expense. / And I’m just like that bird, oh, oh, / Singin’ just for you. / I hope that you can hear, / Hear me singin’ through these tears.” And then, a nice metaphor: “Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast / Oh, but what a shame if all we’ve shared can’t last. / I can change, I swear, oh, oh, / See what you can do. / I can make it through, / You can make it too.” Does he quote or coin a phrase? “Love is so simple, to quote a phrase, / You’ve known it all the time, I’m learnin’ it these days. / Oh, I know where I can find you, oh, oh, / In somebody’s room. / It’s a price I have to pay / You’re a big girl all the way.” The pangs of jealousy are biting deep. “A change in the weather is known to be extreme / But what’s the sense of changing horses in midstream? / I’m going out of my mind, oh, oh, / With a pain that stops and starts / Like a corkscrew to my heart / Ever since we’ve been apart.” That’s quite a simile – like a corkscrew in his heart. Eina! Wikipedia is quite effusive in its praise for this song, describing Dylan’s voice as “quieter and silkier than it ever sounded”. And, for once, the song is not like “his most condescending love songs”, instead it is “arranged, performed and sung in the gentlest of ways”. One does get the impression that this is a man who has discovered the complexities of love relationships through his own experience, and been humbled by the fact that, no matter how rich and famous he had become, sharing a life with another person can only succeed if both parties are prepared to compromise. As Wikipedia notes: “Two lines in, Dylan sings, ‘I’m back in the rain’, and a minute later, at some last emotional end, he whispers, ‘I can change I swear’ – an ineffable moment in his most vulnerable song.”
And aren’t we often at our most aggressive when feeling particularly vulnerable? This may explain the vituperative tone of Idiot Wind, a 7:45 minute epic in the finest Dylan tradition. It starts with a thumbing bass, drums, acoustic guitar and organ. The sense of paranoia is there from the outset: “Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press / Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out but when they will I can only guess. / They say I shot a man named Gray and took his wife to
The final track on Side 1 has one of those typically Dylan long titles, You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, but is just under three minutes long. Again, it is a fast-paced song, with harmonica and strummed acoustic guitar backed by more nimble bass playing which sends the song surging forward. Punchy harmonica near the end gives it the final Dylan stamp. “I’ve seen love go by my door / It’s never been this close before / Never been so easy or so slow. / Been shooting in the dark too long / When somethin’s not right it’s wrong / Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go.” Ah, another turmoil-ridden romance, by the looks of it. “Dragon clouds so high above / I’ve only known careless love, / It’s always hit me from below. / This time around it’s more correct / Right on target, so direct, / Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go.” Again, it seems we have a more humble soul in our midst. And this verse alludes to the age-old problem which men have of letting not their hearts, but their libido, rule their heads. And isn’t there an echo here of Shakespeare’s sonnets? Just asking. But consider the lines, “Dragon clouds so high above / I’ve only known careless love / It’s always hit me from below.” You have this force of nature, the dragon-shaped clouds hovering, while he falls prey to licentiousness, driven “from below”. Let’s see where he ends up: “Purple clover, Queen Anne lace, / Crimson hair across your face, / You could make me cry if you don’t know. / Can’t remember what I was thinkin’ of / You might be spoilin’ me too much, love, / Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go.” He finds his lot too good to be true, and given his past dalliances fears her inevitable departure, as payment for his sins. “Flowers on the hillside, bloomin’ crazy, / Crickets talkin’ back and forth in rhyme, / Blue river runnin’ slow and lazy, / I could stay with you forever / And never realize the time.” Isn’t that wonderful descriptive writing… “Situations have ended sad, / Relationships have all been bad. / Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud. / But there’s no way I can compare / All those scenes to this affair, / Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go.” Okay, so Bob Dylan was very well read, making the rest of us feel inadequate. I won’t try to discover what Vertlaine and Rembaud’s relationships were like, trusting his accuracy. “Yer gonna make me wonder what I’m doin’, / Stayin’ far behind without you. / Yer gonna make me wonder what I’m sayin', / Yer gonna make me give myself a good talkin’ to.” Is she leaving him? “I’ll look for you in old
Side 2 starts with adroitly picked guitar, bass and drums on Meet Me In The Morning. It is a pulsating track in which I think I discerned both electric lead and slide guitars. What made Dylan such a good songwriter? It was surely the ability, lyric-wise, to latch onto a catchy line, and build on it. This is the first time I’m seeing what he was singing in that opening line – two streets, but where?
Dylan’s long, rambling narrative tales do sometimes become tedious, and Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts possibly falls into that category. It is 8:50 minutes of vocals sung to fast-paces strumming on the acoustic guitar, with harmonica, drums and bass, as well as a touch of organ, providing a rounded backing sound. Yet, as with all the other songs by this master, life without the Jack Of Hearts would be unthinkable. We’re all familiar with the song, but let’s see if there are any surprises. “The festival was over, the boys were all plannin’ for a fall, / The cabaret was quiet except for the drillin’ in the wall. / The curfew had been lifted and the gamblin’ wheel shut down, / Anyone with any sense had already left town. / He was standin’ in the doorway lookin’ like the Jack of Hearts.” Already, for me, an anomaly. Why, if the curfew had been lifted, had everyone left town? “He moved across the mirrored room, ‘Set it up for everyone,’ he said, / Then everyone commenced to do what they were doin’ before he turned their heads. / Then he walked up to a stranger and he asked him with a grin, / ‘Could you kindly tell me, friend, what time the show begins?’ / Then he moved into the corner, face down like the Jack of Hearts.” It has all the makings of a Wild West saloon drama. “Backstage the girls were playin’ five-card stud by the stairs, / Lily had two queens, she was hopin’ for a third to match her pair. / Outside the streets were fillin’ up, the window was open wide, / A gentle breeze was blowin’, you could feel it from inside. / Lily called another bet and drew up the Jack of Hearts.” What a bizarre idea for a song. “Big Jim was no one’s fool, he owned the town’s only diamond mine, / He made his usual entrance lookin’ so dandy and so fine. / With his bodyguards and silver cane and every hair in place, / He took whatever he wanted to and he laid it all to waste. / But his bodyguards and silver cane were no match for the Jack of Hearts.” So things are being set up for a major confrontation. “Rosemary combed her hair and took a carriage into town, / She slipped in through the side door lookin’ like a queen without a crown. / She fluttered her false eyelashes and whispered in his ear, / ‘Sorry, darlin’, that I'm late,’ but he didn’t seem to hear. / He was starin’ into space over at the Jack of Hearts.” All the actors seem to have arrived. “ ‘I know I’ve seen that face before,’ Big Jim was thinkin’ to himself, / ‘Maybe down in
Dylan gets squarely back into folk-song mode on the next song, If You See Her, Say Hello, which starts with some slow, exquisitely picked acoustic guitar and organ. “If you see her, say hello, she might be in Tangier / She left here last early spring, is livin’ there, I hear / Say for me that I’m all right though things get kind of slow / She might think that I’ve forgotten her, don’t tell her it isn’t so.” This has something of Girl From The North Country about it – “say for me”. Again, it is all about love and love lost. “We had a falling-out, like lovers often will / And to think of how she left that night, it still brings me a chill / And though our separation, it pierced me to the heart / She still lives inside of me, we’ve never been apart.” The pain of losing her – that was how Stephen Stills put it once. “If you get close to her, kiss her once for me / I always have respected her for busting out and getting’ free / Oh, whatever makes her happy, I won’t stand in the way / Though the bitter taste still lingers on from the night I tried to make her stay.” Funny that, but I wouldn’t want someone to kiss the girl I loved “for me”. It’s hardly the best antidote to jealousy. “I see a lot of people as I make the rounds / And I hear her name here and there as I go from town to town / And I’ve never gotten used to it, I’ve just learned to turn it off / Either I’m too sensitive or else I’m getting’ soft.” I think on this album Dylan discovers “getting soft” is not an entirely bad thing. “Sundown, yellow moon, I replay the past / I know every scene by heart, they all went by so fast / If she’s passin’ back this way, I’m not that hard to find / Tell her she can look me up if she’s got the time.”
The penultimate track, Shelter From The Storm, at nearly five minutes, is another of those iconic Dylan songs, packed with interesting turns of phrase. But what was it all about? The acoustic guitar is strummed fast and frenetically, backed by a rollicking bass. The harmonica returns with a vengeance between verses, as Dylan unpacks another piece of vintage folk-rock. “ ’Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood / When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud / I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form. / ‘Come in,’ she said, / ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm’.” The blood of the title is back, and an interesting scenario is described. In apartheid
The final track, Buckets Of Rain, may be deemed something of an afterthought, but it is one of the most beautiful tracks on the album, an antidote, as it were, for the angst that preceded it. I remember hearing a snatch of this during some or other film – like hearing Dylan on the ratio in apartheid
Well this album did it for me and a myriad other people in the mid-1970s. But was it a truly great album? Well it was ranked No 16 on Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Not bad for a musician who’d been hard at it for nearly 15 years.
The problem/beauty with/of Wikipedia is that it reveals just how extensive and rich Dylan’s output was. From this album, we discover, there were rejects, or outtakes, which in retrospect have become equally important as those selected songs. I’ve not heard Up To Me, but Tim Riley is quoted as saying it was “the engine of feeling underlying the album”. It was later issued on the 1985 album, Biograph. There is also, one learns, a bootleg consisting of both the original
The album was slammed for its “instrumental incompetence” by Crawdaddy reviewer Jim Cusiamona, Wikipedia tells us, while NME’s Nick Kent was equally condemnatory. Jon Landau of Rolling Stone said it would “only sound like a great album for a while. Like most of Dylan, it is impermanent”. But another critic, Paul Williams, called it “the best album of the last five years by anybody”.
But the public voted with their money, and the album became his second
And, Wikipedia quotes Heylin as writing that Dylan would write Abandoned Love soon afterwards, along with One More Cup Of Coffee, with both songs setting the stage for his next album, which would signal another dramatic change in musical direction.
The Basement Tapes
The Basement Tapes, released in 1974, I did not listen to at all. It was a time when there was so much else happening music-wise, that for Dylan to make an impact he had to produce something altogether new and special. This album was recorded eight years earlier, with The Band, while Dylan was recovering from his near-fatal 1967 motorbike accident. The project involved exploring traditional American music – as a reaction, in a sense, to the psychedelic rock others, including the Beatles, were into at the time. It laid the groundwork for his successful country-style John Wesley Harding (1967).
The Wikipedia information on this project makes for fascinating reading. Apart from covering songs from the gamut of traditional music, Dylan also recorded at least 30 new compositions with The Band, then still known as the Hawks. These included such classics as I Shall Be Released, This Wheel’s On Fire and Quinn The Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn), the latter two becoming big hits for Manfred Mann and Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger And The Trinity, respectively. Other songs from the sessions were turned into hits by The Byrds. The sessions also led to the first commercially, but illegally, available rock bootleg “album”, known as Great White Wonder.
So, eight years later, and after considerable remixing and overdubbing, the Basement Tapes double album comprising 24 songs, was released on June 26, 1975. Just consider what quality was out there at the time. Wikipedia reports that the Basement Tapes topped The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Critics Poll for 1975 “beating out Patti Smith’s Horses,
Since I don’t claim to be a Dylan aficionado – I just enjoyed an addiction to most of his early albums, that’s all – it is interesting to note from Wikipedia that, because only a fraction of the recordings made in the Big Pink with the Band are on the Basement Tapes, the remainder have been made available on a bootlegged 5-CD set known as The Genuine Basement Tapes. Now that must be worth hearing! Wikipedia, of course, carries a wealth of information on all the history and background leading to the release of the Basement Tapes – more fascinating reading.
Clearly, these albums, including the Basement Tapes, are treasures which superficial fans like myself missed out on at our peril. How on earth have I allowed Tears Of Rage, Goin’ To
I would have no similar regrets, however, when it came to Dylan’s next album, which tied in nicely with my brothers’ and my own growing love for traditional Irish music, as well as acoustic folk-rock by British bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. Also, we had a good friend, Dave Tarr, who would make quite a considerable impact playing, primarily, electric violin for various bands in
There were plenty of stories doing the rounds at the time as to how Scarlet Rivera came to play on the album, but from Wikipedia I learn that Dylan had been much influenced by Patti Smith’s band, and decided he needed to form his own band too – for the first time. They would tour as The Rolling Thunder Revue. It was in late June of 1975 that he was “driving around”
What I also hadn’t realised was that this was Dylan’s first truly collaborative album. Apparently he and Jacques Levy co-wrote all the album’s songs in less than four weeks.
The album, which topped the
Wikipedia is again replete with details about how the album was made, with Eric Clapton just one of five guitarists forming part of a huge complement of musicians at the outset. This was later whittled down to a more manageable number.
I gave this album a fresh listen and was immediately aware of a further refinement in Dylan’s work, with Scarlet Rivera’s solo violin definitely adding a new dimension. It becomes evident early on the opening track, Hurricane, which kicks off with crisply strummed acoustic guitar, backed by drums and bass. With the violin providing a haunting “second voice”, Dylan launches into those immortal first words: “Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night / Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall. / She sees the bartender in a pool of blood, / Cries out, ‘My God, they killed them all!’”. There is a short pause here before the lines: “Here comes the story of the Hurricane, / The man the authorities came to blame / For somethin’ that he never done. / Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been / The champion of the world.” Interestingly, between verses it is the violin which offers short, sharp bits of genius, instead of Dylan’s trademark harmonica. Often, I found these violin bursts too short to give Rivera adequate creative scope, but she is able to nestle back in beside his voice during the verses with consummate ease. And this is a long song, all 8:33 minutes of it. It is a cracking, thumping rock song that relies heavily on the sense of flow provided by the violin. It is only near the end that the harmonica is introduced alongside those fiddle flourishes – and it is not an entirely happy union. Hurricane is a long, rambling song which, says Wikipedia, protests the innocence of former middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was convicted for triple homicide in 1966. He was released in 1985 after a
Almost as lengthy as the first track,
A female voice accompanies Dylan – is it Emmylou Harris? – as he ventures into
Each song, while having similar instrumental components, has a unique feel, a defining quality. One More Cup Of Coffee starts with slowly strummed guitar, with the bass coming in from the top of the register. A quietly-played fiddle insinuates its way into the mix, as the rhythm section falls in alongside. Again, female harmonies enhance the choruses, with inter-verse fiddle solos again a hallmark. Again, I wasn’t really hearing these lyrics, only the chorus, so let’s see where Dylan was taking us after that cup of coffee: “Your breath is sweet / Your eyes are like two jewels in the sky / Your back is straight your hair is smooth / On the pillow where you lie / But I don’t sense affection / No gratitude or love / Your loyalty is not to me / But to the stars above.” So this is one attractive, but aloof lady. Then comes the chorus: “One more cup of coffee for the road / One more cup of coffee ’fore I go. / To the valley below.” The relevance of this is still unclear. “Your daddy he’s an outlaw / And a wanderer by trade / He’ll teach you how to pick and choose / And how to throw the blade / He oversees his kingdom / So no stranger does intrude / His voice it trembles as he calls out / For another plate of food.” So she’s the servant to an outlaw father, at his beck and call. After another chorus, he continues: “Your sister sees the future / Like your mama and yourself / You’ve never learned to read or write / There’s no books upon your shelf / And your pleasure knows no limits / Your voice is like a meadowlark / But your heart is like an ocean / Mysterious and dark.” Dylan again reveals an absolute penchant for flattery. Beautiful women clearly are his ultimate muse. But it is here that this lovely song ends, with the chorus seeming to imply he would head on to that distant valley.
This album is also notable for the key role played by the drums, which become virtually a lead instrument on a song like Oh, Sister. It starts slowly, with acoustic guitar and fiddle, the rhythm section again asserting itself and female backing vocals – Emmylou again? – becoming an integral part of the new Dylan sound. Just four short verses, this song nevertheless runs for 4:05 minutes, and it is between the verses that one again hears the fiddle and harmonica vie for supremacy, not always successfully. “Oh, sister, when I come to lie in your arms / You should not treat me like a stranger. / Our Father would not like the way that you act / And you must realize the danger.” Shock, horror. Is this an incestuous relationship? “Oh, sister, am I not a brother to you / And one deserving of affection? / And is our purpose not the same on this earth, / To love and follow His direction?” The mood changes for the third verse: “We grew up together / From the cradle to the grave / We died and were reborn / And then mysteriously saved.” There seem to be heavy overtones of the Christian Dylan here. But are we also not seeing the subversion of religion, or cult, for rather dubious purposes? You judge: “Oh, sister, when I come to knock on your door, / Don’t turn away, you’ll create sorrow. / Time is an ocean but it ends at the shore / You may not see me tomorrow.” Whatever it’s meaning, few can have written as fine a line as that penultimate one about time. Again, a Dylan classic. Was my interpretation correct, though? Wikipedia quotes Tim Riley as noting that this was “the first time Dylan had invoked God as a method of wooing a woman, and that with Emmylou Harris, the song became a discourse on the fragility of love”.
Now who on earth was Joey? Again it is those thumping drums which add sparkle to luminosity on this song, which starts, predictably, with slowly strummed acoustic guitar, bass and drums, with the violin joining in alongside that memorable opening line. I said memorable, but of course I misheard it completely. I was hearing something like “Morning sun da-da-da”. In fact Joey starts: “Born in Red Hook, Brooklyn, in the year of who knows when / Opened up his eyes to the tune of an accordion / Always on the outside of whatever side there was / When they asked him why it had to be that way, ‘Well,’ he answered, ‘just because’.” Isn’t that a brilliant introduction? Imagine being a baby and opening your eyes “to the tune of an accordion”. This is a long narrative tale which, as observed earlier, caused considerable controversy. A 12-verse ballad that runs to just over 11 minutes, it is the longest on the album and, according to Wikipedia, describes the life of deceased gangster Joey Gallo. But, unlike with Hurricane, it seems here Dylan made an error of judgment. Wikipedia says he presented Gallo as “an outlaw with morals, in the tradition of Woody Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd”. Dylan’s Gallo, we learn, “refused to kill innocent people, made peace with black men, and shielded his family when he was about to be shot … in a restaurant”. But rock critic Lester Bangs, says Wikipedia, argued that Gallo was “well known as a vicious Mafioso whose documented career was not accurately reflected in the song’s lyrics”. Dylan, inspired by his biography and meeting Gallo’s friends, wrote the song in one night, says Wikipedia. It says “Dylan’s attempt to romanticise Gallo was greeted with an enormous amount of contempt by the press, public officials, and private citizens alike”. It seems the song even glossed over ugly facts about Gallo in the biography, which made a mockery of his claims that he “would not carry a gun” because he was around too many children, and even the question, in the chorus, “what make them want to come and blow you away”. Gallo, in fact had shot gangster Joe Colombo the previous year. Despite all this, Clinton Heylin said the song remained the one song from the album that featured in Dylan concerts into the nineties. Piano is introduced, and even strings play a part in this epic in which Emmylou Harris’s backing vocals and the omnipresent violin are an integral part. But again, these are lyrics we never really listened to, instead just enjoying the song for what it was. “Larry was the oldest, Joey was next to last. / They called Joe ‘Crazy’, the baby they called ‘Kid Blast’. / Some say they lived off gambling and runnin’ numbers too. / It always seemed they got caught between the mob and the men in blue.” Well that verse seems to indicate acceptance Joey was no angel. Then that chorus: “Joey, Joey, / King of the streets, child of clay. / Joey, Joey, / What made them want to come and blow you away?” Perhaps the story will tell us. “There was talk they killed their rivals, but the truth was far from that / No one ever knew for sure where they were really at. / When they tried to strangle Larry, Joey almost-a-hit the roof. / He went out that night to seek revenge, thinkin’ he was bulletproof.” In scenes reminiscent of Gangs of New York, the saga unfolds: “The war broke out at the break of dawn, it emptied out the streets / Joey and his brothers suffered terrible defeats / ’Til they ventured out behind the lines and took five prisoners. / They stashed them away in a basement, called them amateurs.” It all seems rather bizarre that Dylan could have written a song about gangsters when many of those involved were either still alive or had family who were. “The hostages were tremblin’ when they heard a man exclaim, / ‘Let’s blow this place to kingdom come, let Con Edison take the blame.’ / But Joey stepped up, an’ he raised his hand, said, ‘We are not those kind of men. / It’s peace and quiet that we need to go back to work again.’” That sounds rather unlikely – much like the painting of the Hurricane as a man who fought, but disliked violence. After the chorus, the story continues: “The police department hounded him, they called him Mr. Smith / They got him on conspiracy, they were never sure who with. / ‘What time is it?’ said the judge to Joey when they met / ‘Five to ten,’ said Joey. Judge says, ‘That’s exactly what you get.’” The use of that joke in a song is rather weak – although perhaps Dylan was the originator. So he goes down. “He did ten years in
After that bit of brutal social realism, time for another escape to warmer, more charming climes. Is that a mandolin or a basouki which plays such a mood-setting role on Romance In Durango? At 5:50 minutes, this is a relatively short song, but it packs in enough exotic information to take you far from your cold comfort zones. I think I even detected an electric guitar alongside the acoustic version here, and the use of an accordion, some horns, with give a carnival flavour, and female backing vocals, not to mention that violin. All ad up to something of a musical fiesta. Is it Mexican? Wikipedia will tell us in a minute, but let’s feel the spirit of the thing: “Hot chilli peppers in the blistering sun / Dust on my face and my cape / Me and
This seminal Dylan album ends with one of his most haunting love songs – to his soon-to-be-divorced wife, Sara. There is something almost preordained, predestined, about certain Dylan songs. This one seems always to have been around, just waiting for the maestro to launch it into life. Again it is the slow bass, cymbals and harmonica which lay down the melody. And, as Dylan opens with those timeless, plaintive lines, the violin is instantly there in support. I have to confess this song left me somewhat choked up, when seen in the light of what was happening in his life. Wikipedia says the song is “arguably Dylan’s most public display of his personal life”. An “ambitious tribute to his wife, Sara, it is possibly Dylan’s only song in which he steps out of his public pesona and directly addresses a real person, with striking biographical accuracy”. The more cynical Tim Riley called it “a fevered cry of loss posing as sincere devotion”. Wikipedia notes that his marriage was in a “turbulent state” at the time, with his estrangement from Sara having led to at least one separation the previous year. Yet, we learn, Sara was there when the song was recorded. However, in March 1977, she filed for divorce. So this song is really a poignant piece, full of nostalgia and his trademark poetic flattery. “I laid on a dune, I looked at the sky, / When the children were babies and played on the beach. / You came up behind me, I saw you go by, / You were always so close and still within reach.” Then that mournful, pleading chorus. “Sara, Sara, / Whatever made you want to change your mind? / Sara, Sara, / So easy to look at, so hard to define.” He pours out his heart: “I can still see them playin’ with their pails in the sand, / They run to the water their buckets to fill. / I can still see the shells fallin’ out of their hands / As they follow each other back up the hill.” Each chorus lavishes praise. “Sara, Sara, / Sweet virgin angel, sweet love of my life, / Sara, Sara, / Radiant jewel, mystical wife.” The nostalgia continues: “Sleepin’ in the woods by a fire in the night, / Drinkin’ white rum in a
Not surprisingly, Desire is considered a Dylan classic, and was ranked at 174 on Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
I don’t recall hearing Hard Rain, a live album which was recorded in May 1976 in
I only picked up a copy of Street Legal, Dylan’s 18th studio album, about five years after its release in 1978 – probably because my mind was on other things, like Dire Straits, the army, Johnny Clegg and Juluka, the army, finding an attractive young woman, the army, The Police, the army. And so on. Oh, and even perhaps finding an actual money-earning job. But it was the prospect of two years as a military conscript that kept me away from Street Legal, till I bought it around 1983, when I moved to
Wikipedia notes that Dylan happened to be at a recording studio in February, 1977, where Leonard Cohen was recording Death Of A Ladies Man with Phil Spector. He was also much affected by his June 1977 divorce from Sara and a long subsequent battle for custody of their children, as well as the August 16 death of Elvis Presley.
He had embarked on a tour of
There are reportedly Christian overtones to many of the songs, but for me they are memorable for one or two clever lines. Yet, again, they are Dylan’s works, maybe lesser works, but they are by the master and have to be accepted as such. Flawed yes, but still signed by the man himself. And catchy as hell. The chorus of the opening track, Changing Of The Guards, remains indelible. A lengthy opener, at 6:36 minutes, again I was not fully cogniscant of just what the lyrics were about, so let’s have a look. “Sixteen years, / Sixteen banners united over the field / Where the good shepherd grieves. / Desperate men, desperate women divided, / Spreading their wings ’neath the falling leaves.” I mean, one just doesn’t hear those words when you listen to the song. Written down, this is pure poetry. “Fortune calls. / I stepped forth from the shadows, to the marketplace, / Merchants and thieves, hungry for power, my last deal gone down. / She’s smelling sweet like the meadows where she was born, / On midsummer’s eve, near the tower.” The song moves ineluctably on. “The cold-blooded moon. / The captain waits above the celebration / Sending his thoughts to a beloved maid / Whose ebony face is beyond communication. / The captain is down but still believing that his love will be repaid.” It’s another Dylan ballad. “They shaved her head. / She was torn between Jupiter and Apollo. / A messenger arrived with a black nightingale. / I seen her on the stairs and I couldn’t help but follow, / Follow her down past the fountain where they lifted her veil.” I’m waiting for that chorus. “I stumbled to my feet. / I rode past destruction in the ditches / With the stitches still mending ’neath a heart-shaped tattoo. / Renegade priests and treacherous young witches / Were handing out the flowers that I’d given to you.” Phew! This is hectic stuff.
Was New Pony also good poetry? Firstly, I never heard the first word. I thought it started, “I had a pony”, but my website lyric download says the song goes: “Once I had a pony, her name was Lucifer / I had a pony, her name was Lucifer / She broke her leg and she needed shooting / I swear it hurt me more than it could ever have hurted her.” Here there is a backing female vocal saying “how much longer, how much longer”. But what a bizarre song! Is this about a pony, or a woman? Is pony a metaphor for the woman he likes to “ride”? It might even be his response to Sara, with the love of his life transformed into a Lucifer she-devil. And who is Miss X? “Sometimes I wonder what’s going on in the mind of Miss X / Sometimes I wonder what’s going on in the mind of Miss X / You know she got such a sweet disposition / I never know what the poor girl’s gonna do to me next.” Replace “pony” with “woman” in the rest of this song, and see where it leaves you. “I got a new pony, she knows how to fox-trot, lope and pace / Well, I got a new pony, she knows how to fox-trot, lope and pace / She got great big hind legs / And long black shaggy hair above her face.” The next verse is innocuous: “Well now, it was early in the mornin’, I seen your shadow in the door / It was early in the morning’, I seen your shadow in the door / Now, I don’t have to ask nobody / I know what you come here for.” But what of the next one: “They say you’re usin’ voodoo, your feet walk by themselves / They say you’re usin’ voodoo, I seen your feet walk by themselves / Oh, baby, that god you been prayin’ to / Is gonna give ya back what you’re wishin’ on someone else.” But, in an almost surreally horrible way, this voodoo-worshiping pony woman is attractive to him. “Come over here pony, I, I wanna climb up one time on you / Come over here pony, I, I wanna climb up one time on you / Well, you’re so bad and nasty / But I love you, yes I do.”
Perhaps it’s time for some expert advice on what this is all about. Wikipedia says of note “are the subtly religious and somewhat apocalyptic overtones found throughout the album’s cryptic lyrics, especially in Changing Of The Guards, No Time To Think and Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)”. No Time To Think is another rambling Dylan epic, at 8:19 minutes. I have to confess the lyrics themselves barely registered with me, despite regular listening. Yet here, again, are lines of incredible poetry. “In death, you face life with a child and a wife / Who sleep-walks through your dreams into walls. / You’re a soldier of mercy, you’re cold and you curse, / ‘He who cannot be trusted must fall.’” This, surely, is a reaction to his emotional situation after his break-up with Sara. “Loneliness, tenderness, high society, notoriety. / You fight for the throne and you travel alone / Unknown as you slowly sink / And there’s no time to think.” The betrayal, Judas’s 40 pieces, is now alluded to: “In the
The anger continues on Baby, Stop Crying. I was, in the mid-1980s, to experience divorce after three years of marriage. Let’s just say that the emotions Dylan writes about here are not difficult to fathom, even if in the end termination of that relationship for me was entirely beneficial. But consider Dylan’s state of mind in the following: “You been down to the bottom with a bad man, babe, / But you’re back where you belong. / Go get me my pistol, babe, / Honey, I can’t tell right from wrong.” Then that endless, relentless crying. “Baby, please stop crying, stop crying, stop crying / Baby, please stop crying, stop crying, stop crying / Baby, please stop crying. / You know, I know, the sun will always shine / So baby, please stop crying ’cause it’s tearing up my mind.” Eina! Ouch! The mind can only take so much, and this is where it’s at. “Go down to the river, babe, / Honey, I will meet you there. / Go down to the river, babe, / Honey, I will pay your fare.” What is planned. After that lachrymose chorus, it continues: “If you’re looking for assistance, babe, / Or if you just want some company / Or if you just want a friend you can talk to, / Honey, come and see about me.” He continues: “You been hurt so many times / And I know what you’re thinking of. / Well, I don’t have to be no doctor, babe, / To see that you’re madly in love.” So why’s she crying to hysterically?
Dylan is back to his song-writing best on Is Your Love in Vain?, both lyrically and melodically. “Do you love me, or are you just extending goodwill? / Do you need me half as bad as you say, or are you just feeling guilt? / I’ve been burned before and I know the score / So you won’t hear me complain. / Will I be able to count on you / Or is your love in vain?” Some have called this misogynistic, but surely it is the narrator who is questioning his own worthiness, not the other way round. “Are you so fast that you cannot see that I must have solitude? / When I am in the darkness, why do you intrude? / Do you know my world, do you know my kind / Or must I explain? / Will you let me be myself / Or is your love in vain?” This is an angry not-so-young man, wanting a relationship, but also the space to be himself. The pitfall of many a relationship, I guess. “Well I’ve been to the mountain and I’ve been in the wind, / I’ve been in and out of happiness. / I have dined with kings, I’ve been offered wings / And I’ve never been too impressed. / All right, I’ll take a chance, I will fall in love with you / If I’m a fool you can have the night, you can have the morning too. / Can you cook and sew, make flowers grow, / Do you understand my pain? / Are you willing to risk it all / Or is your love in vain?” I would say, yes, her love is in vain, but that they can still be good friends, and love may grow. But clearly, Bob Dylan accepts he is not easy to be with. Which great artist ever was?
As I got into this,
On True Love Tends to Forget, the angst of love continues to be explored. Although the song is more up-tempo, the mood remains low: “I’m getting weary looking in my baby’s eyes / When she’s near me she’s so hard to recognize. / I finally realize there’s no room for regret, / True love, true love, true love tends to forget.” The next verse reveals just how bad it can get: “Hold me, baby be near, / You told me that you’d be sincere. / Every day of the year’s like playin’ Russian roulette, / True love, true love, true love tends to forget.” But true love, it seems, remembered the hurts very well and soon fell out of love. And he’s destroyed: “I was lyin’ down in the reeds without any oxygen / I saw you in the wilderness among the men. / Saw you drift into infinity and come back again / All you got to do is wait and I’ll tell you when.” But he can’t escape her wiles: “You're a tearjerker, baby, but I’m under your spell, / You’re a hard worker, baby, and I know you well. / But this weekend in hell is making me sweat, / True love, true love, true love tends to forget, / True love, true love, true love tends to forget.” After repeating the verse about being without oxygen, he concludes “You belong to me, baby, without any doubt, / Don’t forsake me, baby, don’t sell me out. / Don’t keep me knockin’ about from
The torment continues on We Better Talk This Over. This is as poignant a poem about broken love as you’re likely to find. Reading these lyrics I don’t think Dylan could have delved deeper into the turbulence of a love that has torn itself apart. “I think we better talk this over / Maybe when we both get sober / You’ll understand I’m only a man / Doin’ the best that I can.” How many women realise that a man is only a man. The good ones do. “This situation can only get rougher. / Why should we needlessly suffer? / Let’s call it a day, go our own different ways / Before we decay.” Having just spoken at length to a colleague with three young sons who is in the throes of a messy divorce, this song has added pathos for me. “You don’t have to be afraid of looking into my face, / We’ve done nothing to each other time will not erase.” After that two-line verse, a return to the longer version: “I feel displaced, I got a low-down feeling / You been two-faced, you been double-dealing. / I took a chance, got caught in the trance / Of a downhill dance.” I enjoy his choice of words to explore the sense of dislocation one feels. “Oh, child, why you wanna hurt me? / I’m exiled, you can’t convert me. / I’m lost in the haze of your delicate ways / With both eyes glazed.” Then another powerful, reassuring, two-liner. “You don’t have to yearn for love, you don’t have to be alone, / Somewheres in this universe there’s a place that you can call home.” He accepts it’s over: “I guess I'll be leaving tomorrow / If I have to beg, steal or borrow. / It’d be great to cross paths in a day and a half / Look at each other and laugh.” But he knows that is unlikely. “But I don’t think it’s liable to happen / Like the sound of one hand clappin’. / The vows that we kept are now broken and swept / ’Neath the bed where we slept.” Another reassurance: “Don’t think of me and fantasize on what we never had, / Be grateful for what we’ve shared together and be glad.” How’s this for a description of separation: “Why should we go on watching each other through a telescope? / Eventually we’ll hang ourselves on all this tangled rope.” And suicide is, at these times, often deemed an option. “Oh, babe, time for a new transition / I wish I was a magician. / I would wave a wand and tie back the bond / That we’ve both gone beyond.”
The final track, Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat), at 6:16 minutes, wraps up an album that offers a bounty of poetry, but which fails really, in terms of production and general likeability. “There’s a long distance train rolling through the
rain, tears on the letter I write / There’s a woman I long to touch and I miss her so much but she’s drifting like a satellite / There’s a neon light ablaze in the green smoky haze, and laughter down on Elizabeth Street / And a lonesome bell tone in that valley of stone where she bathed in a stream of pure heat / Her father would emphasize you got to be more than street-wise but he practiced what he preached from the heart / A full-blooded Cherokee, he predicted it to me the time and the place it would start.” It’s another love song, or so it seems. “There’s a babe in the arms of a woman in a rage / And a longtime golden-haired stripper onstage / And she winds back the clock and she turns back the
page / Of a book that nobody write / Oh, where are you tonight?” Who knows where this is headed? “The truth was obscure, too profound and too pure, to live it you have to explode / In the last hour of need, we entirely agreed, sacrifice was the code of the road / I left town at dawn, with Marcel and St. John, strong men betitled by doubt / I couldn’t
tell her what my private thoughts were but she had some way of finding them out / He took dead-center aim but he missed just the same, she was waiting putting flowers on the shelf / She could feel my despair as I climbed up her hair and discovered her invisible self.” This, suddenly, has the feel of a mediaeval allegory. “There’s a lion in the road, there’s a demon escaped / There’s a million dreams gone, there’s a landscape being raped / As her beauty fades and I watch her undrape / I won’t but then again, maybe I
might / Oh, if I could just find you tonight.” Curioser and curioser. “I fought with my twin, that enemy within, ’til both of us fell by the way / Horseplay and disease is
killing me by degrees while the law looks the other way / Your partners in crime hit me up for nickels and dimes, the man you were loving couldn’t never get clean / It felt outa place, my foot in his face, but he should-a stayed where his money was green / I bit into the root of forbidden fruit with the juice running down my leg / Then I dealt with your boss, who’d never known about loss and who always was too proud to beg / There’s a
white diamond gloom on the dark side of this room and a pathway that leads up to the stars / If you don’t believe there’s a price for this sweet paradise, just remind me to show you the scars.” Then the short, final verse: “There’s a new day at dawn and I’ve finally arrived / If I’m there in the morning, baby, you’ll know I've survived / I can’t believe it, I can’t believe I’m alive / But without you it just doesn’t seem right / Oh, where are you tonight?”
Critic Heylin, quoted by Wikipedia, agrees that the main fault with this album lay in its engineering. He said it “would be the first in a long line of song collections whose failure to be realised in the studio would lay a ‘dust of rumors’ over Dylan as an abidingly creative artist that he has never been able to fully shake”. I had thought of giving this album a fresh listen, but notice that when I last did so I made a note about the “frenetic wailing of the backing vocalists” on Tue Love Tends To Forget. I gave it a miss.
Slow Train Coming
It is probably not surprising that I initially missed out on Slow Train Coming. Dylan’s 19th studio album, it was released in August 1979, while I was in the second month of my two-year military conscription “sentence”. In retrospect, I might have benefited from the album’s strong Chrisitian message, since I was none too pleased to be forced into the apartheid army against my will. But what a change for Dylan! I became aware of the title track over the next two years, as well as the hit song, Gotta Serve Somebody, while the cover art, with its drawing of a train, was more than familiar to me. But the album virtually passed me by. Yet it was to reach No 2 in the
Dylan, feeling somewhat directionless after the failure of his marriage, has said he was “born again” after someone threw a silver cross on the stage during a tour in 1978, when he was obviously feeling ill. He later was quoted as saying Jesus appeared to him in a hotel room. Later, he did a three-month Bible course through the “new-age”
It is interesting to note that Dylan first heard Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler around when I did – in late 1978, early 1979 – when he listened to the single, Sultans Of Swing. Then he caught the band at a gig in
The next few albums by Dylan I missed out on completely, since my life was in turmoil, what with the military on my back from July 1979 to June 1981, and New Wave music pushing much else to the periphery. However, I caught up with him again on an album I bought cheaply as a tape, Empire Burlesque, which was released in 1985. I was now based in Port Elizabeth and working as a reporter on the Evening Post, which I had joined the previous year after being retrenched by the Progressive Federal Party in East London. The UDF-led uprising against apartheid was in full swing, and I was happy to be reporting on aspects of it in the Bay – while all the time being at the beck and call of the SA Defence Force, who in terms of the Defence Act could call me up for four months out of every 24.
Empire Burlesque was his 23rd studio album, and still Dylan was capable of reinventing himself. He seemed to have outgrown his overtly Christian approach, and many of the songs were most enjoyable. I particularly liked the acoustic track, Dark Eyes, the writing of which he refers to in Chronicles. Tight Connection To My Heart was another catchy tune, but certainly nowhere near as powerful as the stuff from the previous two decades.
But the album did have one or two gems, including Something’s Burning, Baby and Trust Yourself, which was a fairly sound philosophy. Emotionally Yours, I’ll Remember You, Tight Connection To My Heart and When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky were all worthwhile songs – and in retrospect belong in the hall of famous tracks by that master composer and musician, Bob Dylan. Then there was Clean-Cut Kid, which critics have labelled one of the toughest Vietnam-vet songs yet.
The album was dubbed “disco Dylan”, but one song, When The Night Comes Falling, was originally far removed from the dance song it ended up as. Wikipedia records that an earlier version, later released on one of the many official “bootleg” albums, was recorded as a “piledriving rocker” with Steven Van Zandt and Roy Bittan of
And it seemed he had not yet forgotten the apocalypse, with Something Burning, Baby being suitably ominous.
Oh, and about this time, in the mid-1980s, Bob had an eye on us too. We wouldn’t have known, living in Fortress South
The year also saw the release of Biograph, a boxed set retrospective, which I became acquainted with six years later when my brother Alistair sent me an audio tape of some of the songs off it. Another major development for Dylan in 1985 was his close working relationship with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. He was to explore that further later in the 1980s, but I’ll deal with that when discussing The Travelling Wilburys.
Dylan has surely been one of the greatest men of his era – and he keeps on going. In 2006, his latest album, Modern Times, had returned him to No 1 on the