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204: Bob Dylan, ‘Idiot Wind’ (NY Sessions)

Posted by jeff on Oct 8, 2014 in Rock, Song Of the week

Bob Dylan–‘Idiot Wind’ (NY Sessions, Take 2)
Bob Dylan–‘Idiot Wind’ (NY Sessions, Take 1)
Bob Dylan–‘Idiot Wind’ (Minnesota Sessions)

0851_155826_Dylan12cBarryFeinsteinFor all my Dylanite regular readers out there, the ones who believe that Bob was immaculately conceived, walks on water and conjures up loaves of bread with a sleight of his hand – close this quickly and go watch Big Brother. I’m going to talk today about both Bob’s imperfections and his perfections. These are my opinions. I’m not even saying they’re empirically correct. But it’s my blog, so I’m allowed to express them. Go shout at someone else.

Back in SoTW 164, I talked about one of Dylan’s finest songs (‘Tangled Up in Blue’) from one of his finest albums (“Blood on the Tracks”). I tell about him learning multi-perspective dramatization under painter-mentor Norman Raeben, about the dissolution of his marriage, about the jaw-droppingly casual New York sessions of the songs and about their criminally tasteless re-recording several months later in Minnesota.

tumblr_m275zhtFSw1qdflgdo1_500I remember my first impressions of the official release of the album. Five of the songs I recognized immediately as among his very finest, masterpieces from the git-go: ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, ‘Simple Twist of Fate’, ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’, ‘You’re Going to Make Me Lonesome When You Go’, ‘Buckets of Rain’. Three were appealing but flawed: ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ (although over the years I’ve learned to appreciate it deeply), ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’ and ‘Shelter from the Storm’. One was a toss-off blues, ‘Meet Me in the Morning’. And one was an aberration–

‘Idiot Wind’. Snarling, abrasive, foul. A ‘let-me-out-of-this-room’ song, Dylan at his worst. It reminded me of the debasement (pun intended) of “Before the Flood”, to which I listened once in 1974 and vowed never to expose myself to again, a resolution I’ve resolutely kept. It had all the venom of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, but with a hack organist instead of Al “God” Kooper, and a vocal devoid of charm, just an artless, tasteless bawling, which I’d regularly skip.

Some years later I became aware of the original New York recordings of “Blood on the Tracks,” uniformly superior to the Minnesota cuts from the released version. Except for ‘Idiot Wind’–

DylanHairRollingThunderwhich was a wholly different song. The garish garage band jettisoned, replaced by a two acoustic guitars, Dylan’s with open tuning in D and Eric Weissberg; a reserved, tasteful bass (Tony Brown, consciously emulating Charlie McCoy from “John Wesley Harding”); a pinch of organ for the occasional garnish, Dylan’s harmonica at the end. The tempo braked to fully elicit the passion and pain within. The strident 7th notes raised one game-changing half-step to anguished, remorseful Major 7ths. God is indeed in the details. And crucially, the vocal, no longer sneering from behind the white-faced, basketball arena mask. Here is that rarest of Bob Dylans – exposed, vulnerable, introspective, self-critical. Honest, straightforward, open. Human.

1972dylanSomething very terrible happened to a close friend last week. We’re both guys, so we didn’t really talk about it, just sort of grunted at each other over a couple of beers talking about 50-year old music. I think he feels profoundly wronged, but also accepts that he’s not blameless. “We’re idiots, babe, it’s a wonder that we still know how to breathe,” said I.  “And don’t think that refrain does not pass through my mind on a regular basis,” said he.

Dylan circa 1974-75 revised lyrics more frequently than he had changed underwear a decade earlier. In some cases, the changes were significant (see ‘Tangled Up in Blue’), but (astoundingly) equally brilliant. Here the changes are almost all detrimental, some as radically so as the re-recording. Check out the difference between New York’s You close your eyes and pout your lips and slip your fingers from your glove./You can have the best there is, but it’s gonna cost you all your love./You won’t get it from money. versus Minnesota’s You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above/And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love/And it makes me feel so sorry.

tumblr_lkqaf4bbbh1qbqwc2o1_1280It indeed makes me feel so sorry.  Much ink has been spilled on the confessional aspect of “Blood on the Tracks” as the log of the breakup of Dylan’s marriage. In his now-famous words, “A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that. I mean, it, you know, people enjoying that type of pain, you know?”

If we need to feed our morbid voyeurism, Dylan said in an interview that the experience with Raeben wrought havoc at home. “Needless to say, it changed me. I went home after that and my wife never did understand me ever since that day. That’s when our marriage started breaking up. She never knew what I was talking about, what I was thinking about, and I couldn’t possibly explain it.”  And here, he sings, ‘Even you, yesterday, you had to ask me where it’s at. I couldn’t believe after all these years, you didn’t know me better than that, sweet lady.’

Tellingly, the authors of “A Simple Twist of Fate (Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood on the Tracks” (Da Capo Press, 2004) relate in their analysis (pp. 153-158) to the Minnesota version of the song (“The listener is plunged once again into the maelstrom of paranoia, blame and reproach that characterized earlier songs such as ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘Positively 4th Street’”). That’s true, guys.

But the original acoustic version is something much rarer in the Dylan canon – Bob unmasked, naked and vulnerable.

NYC Minnesota
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 Italy.

She inherited a million bucks, and when she died it came to me.

I can’t help it if I’m lucky.

People see me all the time, and they just can’t remember how to act.

Their minds are filled with big ideas, images, and distorted facts.

And even you, yesterday, you had to ask me where it was at.

I can’t believe after all these years that you didn’t know me any better than that, sweet lady.

Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your mouth

Blowing down the back roads heading south.

Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth

You’re an idiot, babe, it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe!

I threw the I Ching yesterday; it said there might be some thunder at the well.

Peace and Quiet’s been avoiding me for so long it feels like living hell.

There’s a lone soldier on the hill, watching falling raindrops pour.

You’d never know it to look at him, but in the final shot he won the war,

After losing every battle.

I ran into the fortune-teller, who said beware of lightning that might strike

I haven’t known peace and quiet for so long I can’t remember what it’s like

There’s a lone soldier on the cross, smoke pourin’ out of a boxcar door

You didn’t know it, you didn’t think it could be done, in the final end he won the wars

After losin’ every battle

I woke up on the roadside, daydreaming about the way things sometimes are.

Hoof beats pounding in my head, at break-neck speeds and making me see stars!

You hurt the ones that I love best, and covered up the truth with lies.

One day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzing around your eyes; blood on your saddle.

 

 

Visions of your chestnut mare shoot through my head and are makin’ me see stars

 

Idiot wind; blowing through the flowers on your tomb.

Blowing through the curtains in your room.

Idiot wind; blowing every time you move your teeth.

You’re an idiot babe, it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe

It was gravity which pulled us in, and destiny which broke us apart.

You tamed the lion in my cage, but it just wasn’t enough to change my heart.

Now everything’s a little upside-down. As a matter of fact the wheels have stopped.

What’s good is bad, what’s bad is good. You’ll find out when you reach the top;

You’re on the bottom.

I noticed at the ceremony that you left all your bags behind.

The driver came in after you left; he gave them all to me, and then he resigned.

The priest wore black on the seventh day, and waltzed around while the building burned.

You didn’t trust me for a minute, babe. I’ve never known the spring to turn so quickly into autumn.

I noticed at the ceremony, your corrupt ways had finally made you blind

I can’t remember your face anymore, your mouth has changed, your eyes

don’t look into mine

The priest wore black on the seventh day and sat stone-faced while the building burned

I waited for you on the running boards, near the cypress trees, while the springtime turned

Slowly into Autumn

Idiot wind; blowing every time you move your jaw

From the Grand Cooley Dam to the Mardi Gras

Idiot wind; blowing every time you move your teeth

You’re an idiot babe. It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.

Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull

From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol

 

We pushed each other a little too far, and one day it just jumped into a raging storm

The hound dog bayed behind your trees, while I was packing up my uniform.

I figured I’d lost you anyway; why go on? What’s the use?

In order to get in a word with you I’d have had to come up with some kind of excuse.

And it just struck me kind of funny.

I can’t feel you anymore, I can’t even touch the books you’ve read

Every time I crawl past your door, I been wishin’ I was somebody else instead

Down the highway, down the tracks, down the road to ecstasy

I followed you beneath the stars, hounded by your memory

And all your ragin’ glory

I’ve been double-crossed too much. At times I think I’ve lost my mind.

Lady killers load dice on me behind my back while imitators steal me blind

You close your eyes and pout your lips and slip your fingers from your glove.

You can have the best there is, but it’s gonna cost you all your love.

You won’t get it from money.

I been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I’m finally free

I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me

You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above

And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love

And it makes me feel so sorry

Idiot wind; blowing through the buttons of our coats.

Blowing through the letters that we wrote.

Idiot wind; Blowing through the dust up on our shelves.

We’re idiots, babe. It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.

 

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203: Aretha Franklin & Ray Charles: ‘Spirit in the Dark’

Posted by jeff on Sep 24, 2014 in Personal, Rock, Song Of the week

Aretha Franklin & Ray Charles: ‘Spirit in the Dark’

Aretha Franklin & Ray Charles- February 1971 Fillmore West sheet 909 frame 33aI live in what I like to call the only non-Christian country in the Western world. We’re Jewish here, and we have a looong history of being different. In high school and college, half of my classmates and most of my neighbors were Jewish, but the subject was virtually unmentioned. Unmentionable. Obliquely noted only on a very few holidays, it was not something you talked about. If you weren’t ashamed of it, it was certainly nothing to strut.

Why would you want to be different?

Well, most of my friends chose that route, and they became less different than their parents (first-generation Americans) and grandparents (European-born, speaking English with a Yiddish accent). The Old World was left back there, Hitler obliterated it anyway, we are all Americans. Well, most of us.

24-09-2014 12-21-26Our grandparents had rescued us from Hitler, our parents had couched us comfortably in suburbia. But in the throes of the Vietnam War, the Chicago convention and Kent State, the American Dream was going sour. My entire generation sought meaning elsewhere – Molotov cocktails, drugs, alcohol, feng shui, communes, even dentistry. A perverse few even did a retro backflip into the religion of their forefathers. A substantial number of them – well, us – found ourselves in Israel, embracing and embraced by Zionism, Orthodox Judaism, and 10,000 miles distance from our nagging mothers. I even wrote a song about this very odyssey.

We Jews have our own calendar. The day starts at sundown (yeah, I know, that’s oxymoronic), the month starts with the reappearance of the moon (whew, I was really worried it wouldn’t show this time), the year on Rosh HaShana (Head of the Year), which occurs (according to our half-lunar/half-solar calendar) somewhere between September 5 and October 5 (except after 2089, when it will come no earlier than September 6 – let me tell you, this is one tangled can of worms).

Spirit in the Dark

Spirit in the Dark

The event is proscribed in the Bible (Leviticus 23:24 and Numbers 29:1) as a day of blowing the ram’s horn. Nowadays here in this Jewish country it’s a two-day holiday. Everybody puts on their holiday finery, buys a lot of flowers and newspapers, and gifts for the friends who are hosting them for a holiday meal. This year it begins at sundown tonight (Wednesday), and runs right into Sabbath (sundown Friday), making this a three-day bacchanalia.

For most folks here, three days of vacation and rest. For those of us who joined OAR (the Observe All the Rules club), it means the Day of Judgment, in which we’re called to account for our behavior during the past year. It’s a ten-day period of soul-searching, climaxing in the Yom Kippur fast. In practice, it’s a 72- hour prayer marathon in synagogue, with occasional breaks for (a lot of) eating and (a lot of) sleeping and (a lot of) reading the newspapers. I want to tell you, 72 hours without internet is a very long time. Or, to put it more philosophically, “Life is short, but the days are very long.”

Some people, spiritually more highly evolved than myself, manage to engage the day in all its gravity. I overheard a young security guard at the entrance to the mall saying to a friend, in utter earnest, “It’s so frightening – on Wednesday were all gonna stand before The King in judgment. Scary, man!”

Concert-Fillmore-West-San-Francisco-Aretha-Franklin-Ray-CharlesI won’t tell you how challenging that prayer marathon is for me, because My Better Half reads this and she likes to try to picture me with a gray beard swaying in rapture.

I will confess that my two regular synagogue buddies and I occasionally exchange during breaks in the prayer a word or two (or a few trillion) about such spiritually lofty subjects as the new officially released boxed set of Dylan’s Basement Tapes. Z and D and I grew up with Lesley West’s Mountain more prominent in our landscape than Mount Sinai, and we all made a similar journey to the same pew in the same synagogue saying the same prayers for 72 hours that our great-grandfathers did in Eastern Europe. That’s a very gratifying concept, but great-grandpa was hardwired in a way that we’re not. Our attitude to spirituality is somewhat wry, to put it mildly. So it’s at times like this, with Divine Judgment hanging over our mortal souls, that Z and D and I and our like reach into the bag of cultural resources on which we were raised for a booster.

1208449-Aretha-Franklin-Jim-MarshallAnd there’s nothing more boostful than Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles’ rendition of her ‘Spirit in the Dark’ as performed at the Fillmore West on March 6, 1971. The folks up on the stage grew up singing their hearts out in churches in Detroit and rural Florida. The kids in the audience occasionally visited Temple Beth Israel in Squirrel Hill or Shaker Heights.

The 3-night gig was a big one for Aretha, her commercial popularity burgeoning. Jerry Wexler put her on stage in front of a white audience singing popular white songs (Beatles, Paul Simon, Stephen Stills) mixed with pop soul (‘Respect’, ‘Dr Feelgood). He replaced her road band with A-level studio musicians King Curtis and his band The Kingpins (featuring Billy Preston) and The Memphis Horns, with Aretha’s regular backup singers.

On the second night, she spontaneously brought Ray Charles on stage to duet with her on ‘Spirit in the Dark’, a quasi-spiritual she’d written and had a hit with a couple of years previously. She sings the song, then disappears off-stage, then returns with The Genius: “I discovered Ray Charles”, she quips, a reference to Flip Wilson’s Christopher Columbus 1967 skit in which “Queen Isabel Johnson” tells Chris that he can have “all the money you all the money you want, honey — You go find Ray Charles!” And shouting/testifying (drunk) from the dock, “Chris gonna find Ray Charles!”

 

God

God

We’ve written before about Aretha and about Ray. As Ray said, “There are singers, then there is Aretha.” She calls him “The Right Reverend Ray”.

The gig was documented in the album “Aretha Live at Fillmore West”, not one of her big hits, but gaining respect over the years. It includes a recording of part of the second night’s version of ‘Spirit in the Dark’ with surprise guest Ray. “I actually saw Ray a week or so earlier and told him what I was doing at the Fillmore but I didn’t think too much about it – until the night and there he was in the crowd. The next thing I knew he was up onstage and we were singing ‘Spirit.’ It was really a fantastic show and one that I’ll always remember.”

In 2005, Rhino Records released a 4-CD box set, “Don’t Fight The Feeling: The Complete Aretha Franklin & King Curtis Live At Fillmore West”, but the version of ‘Spirit in the Dark’ there is from the first night.

The entire duet with Ray is recorded in video, all 25 minutes of it. Technically, the quality is low. Musically, it’s sublime. Do yourself a favor, watch it all. Then watch it again. Watch it just before Rosh HaShana. Watch it just before Christmas and before Aid al-Fitr. Watch it before Martin Luther King’s birthday. Watch it before your own birthday. Watch it on your cat’s birthday. Just watch it.

Judgment

Judgment

It’s magic. It’s inspired. Know what? It’s spiritual.

Aretha is ostensibly singing about God, but it’s one very gritty God: Are you gettin’ the spirit in the dark?/People movin’ oh and they groovin’/Just gettin’ the spirit in the dark/Tell me sister how do ya feel?/Tell me my brother, how do you feel?/Do you feel like dancin?/Get up and let’s start dancin’/Start gettin’ the spirit in the dark./Riiiiide Sally ride/Put your hand on your hips/Cover your eyes/And move with the spirit.

Ray may be singing a church tune, but he’s doing it across the street in a honkey-tonk: Every time you get a girl singing with you, can you feel it deep inside?/When my woman wake me up in the morning, she give me the spirit/I gotta find me a woman tonight, ‘cause I feel the spirit.

Maybe Brother Ray can find The Spirit in a honkey-tonk or at the Fillmore West, but me and Z and D, we’re going to be in our neighborhood synagogue, and if we do any singing it’s gonna be a whole lot more bowdlerized than Ray’s. What can I tell you? We didn’t grow up in Rev. Franklin’s church. Well, we didn’t grow up in Grandpa’s shtiebel either, but each of us decided that those are the roots we choose to embrace. Not drugs, not Moonyism, not Fillmorism. We’re gonna sit in shul for three days and be bored out of our minds and try real hard to reconnect with where we came from and seriously ponder our destiny for the coming year. And maybe here and there we’ll even sneak in a little schmooze about Aretha and Ray’s ‘Spirit in the Dark’.

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202: Laura Nyro, ‘The Confession’

Posted by jeff on Sep 12, 2014 in Rock, Song Of the week

Laura Nyro — ‘The Confession’

LN2

It’s been a landmark week of vindication, one of the biggest “I Told You So”s in my personal history. After 46 years of grabbing unsuspecting passersby by the lapels, shoving my face into their face, and shouting, wide-eyed: “Laura Nyro!” – I’ve been justified.

This week Billy Childs released the long-awaited “Map to the Treasure – Reimagining Laura Nyro”, featuring a whole all-star array of guest artists: Shawn Colvin, Chris Botti, Jerry Douglas, Lisa Fischer, Renee Fleming, Yo Yo Ma, Rickie Lee Jones, Alison Krauss, Ledisi, Dianne Reeves, Esperanza Spalding, Wayne Sorter, Becca Stevens, Susan Tedeschi.

laura23It’s a PR-touted release on a major label by a Grammy-winning artist in collaboration with his boyhood friend and collaborator, Grammy-winning Larry Klein (ex-husband/producer of Joni Mitchell, current husband/producer of the divine Luciana Souza).

So I’ve been jousting at a particular windmill for most of my life, dooming myself to universal ridicule and scorn, and then this Hall of Fame of musical Playboy bunnies comes along and coos “Oh, Jeff, you were right all along.” So what’s my reaction?

Depression, of course.

Laura NyroBecause I’m disappointed in myself. Laura recorded those songs as a personal, private gift to me. And it’s pandering for me to look for approval from others, no matter how many Grammies they’ve won. I’ve been intimate with Laura and her music my entire adult life – it’s informed me and inspired me and educated me and comforted me and protected me – and I shouldn’t give a wooly hoot what anyone else knows or thinks.

What they think – true, I don’t care. Well, I shouldn’t care. What they know – I do care. I’m an altruist, a lover of mankind, an anthrope (that’s the antonym of misanthrope). I want to share great music. I get great pleasure out of facilitating great pleasure in others.

NL2Which is why I’m just pleased as a peacock about the release of “Map to the Treasure”. And I’m not going to get into why I listened to it a few times and went back to listening to Laura. I come to praise Laura, not to bury Billy Childs and Larry Klein, who are fine musicians and have done a wonderful service here. Tens of thousands of people will now listen to Laura, and that’s a cosmic imperative. So, from the very bottom of my heart, thank you, Billy and Larry.

But yeah, I’m disappointed. I don’t expect much from other artists trying to rework the magnitude of Laura’s talent. Even artists I really do admire very much, such as Ms Spalding and Wayne Shorter. My greatest letdown is Rickie Lee Jones. She’s not only a great artist (as are Spalding and Shorter), but her music patently derived from/grew out of Laura’s. Rickie generously admits to that. I heard it from her mouth. (I met her a few years ago, and you can bet your booties I asked her about Laura’s influence). Here she performs ‘Been on a Train’, a diffuse, drugged-out ramble. Laura recorded a lot of those, and they’re not her best. Rickie recorded a lot of those, and they’re not her best.  So -1-1=letdown. Oh, what might have been if – oh, let’s not even go there, Jeff.

NL4Perhaps the most characteristic cut is Becca Stevens’ ‘The Confession’. Up front: I am a Becca Stevens fan. She’s a ballsily independent, genre-flaunting singer-songwriter. She’s sweetly cocky, She’s cool. Aye, there’s the rub. She belongs to Generation X, or Y, whatever we’re up to. The ones who choose Withdraw over Engage. Those who observe wryly. As opposed to those who grab you by the lapels, shove their face into your face, and shout, wide-eyed: “Love my lovething! Love is surely gospel!”

Laura left us three live versions of ‘The Confession’: from Carnegie Hall in 1976, the 1977 “Season of Lights” version, and the 1990 Bottom Line version (charmingly mashed with ‘Hi-Heeled Sneakers’). The song is so imposingly intense that it had never been covered until Billy and Larry had Becca try it. Would that they have chosen a different song for her. Becca is a fine artist, but such up-front sexuality and spiritual epiphany are beyond her (their) emotional range.

NL9The subject of ‘The Confession’, at least ostensibly, is sex. The joy of sex. “Would you love to love me baby?/I would love to love you baby, now baby – now!”

When Laura released “Eli & the 13th Confession” in March, 1968, the two most influential female singers in rock were the androgynous Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin (who loved sex but talked about Respect). Janis Joplin (who also loved sex but sang about heartbreak) released “Cheap Thrills” the same month. Joni Mitchell entered the spotlight a year later, Carol King’s “Tapestry” only in 1971. It was Laura who shattered the glass ceiling, at least for those who were listening.

I’m talking about sex not as an entertainment, but as a central component of the revolution of which Laura was more than a harbinger – she was a catalyst. In March 1968, a woman was a companion, an addendum, a decoration. Women were not yet speaking in a Woman’s Voice. Laura was the first, at least in rock music.

l (5)‘The Confession’ is the closing song of “Eli & The 13th Confession”. That of course is the definitive treatment of the song, with the energizing, thrusting, pulsating guitar and drums so lacking in the later live versions. Here it exists in the context of a world of passions – devils, epiphanies, devastations and celebrations. Yeah, it starts with carnality. But her physical passion is her objective correlative of something much greater: “I keep hearin’ mother cryin’/I keep hearin’ Daddy through his grave/Little girl, of all the daughters/You were born a woman, not a slave.”

‘Little girl, you of all the daughters.’ This is a new breed. Women, throughout the generations, have been appurtenances, slaves in a Man’s World. Waiting to react, to nurture, to serve. Laura Nyro serves no man.

NL6And then come the final lines of the world that is “Eli”, the ultimate confession: “Oh, I hate my winsome lover/Tell him I’ve had others at my breast./But tell him he has held my heart/And only now am I a virgin/I confess.”

Those lines are too elusive for me to or dissect with an academic explication or pin down with a definitive parsing. Why does she hate her lover’s winsomeness? His vulnerability is unsatisfying? After all her battle for independence, she wants to be taken by force, is that her confession?

laura22He has held her heart, she has felt love for the first time, and that has redefined her, restored her to a state of prelapsarian innocence. She has finally, after all those lovers, transcended the carnal into the spiritual? Or has she achieved a state of higher reconciliation? ‘Love my lovething, love is surely gospel’.

I haven’t a clue. I’m intrigued, I’m puzzled, I’m mystified. In the final accounting, I just don’t understand women. Hell, I don’t even understand men.

But I keep listening to Laura, I keep trying. And for that, I don’t need no glitzy Sony Masterworks rehabilitation. I need no confirmation. I have The Confession.

 

Super summer, sugar coppin’ in the mornin’
Do your shoppin’ baby, oh, I love my love thing
Super ride inside my lovething –
You may disappear, but you’ll be back, I swear.

Would you love to love me baby?
I would love to love you baby, now
Would you love to love me baby?
I would love to love you baby, now baby now
No, no it’s not pain.

Super summer, sugar croppin’ in the mornin’
Do your shoppin’ baby
I love my love thing
Super ride inside my love thing
You may leave the fair
But you’ll be back, I swear

Would you love to love me baby?
I would love to love you baby, now
Would you love to love me baby?
I would love to love you baby, now baby, now

I keep hearin’ mother cryin’
I keep hearin’ Daddy through his grave
Little girl of all the daughters
You were born a woman, not a slave

Oh I hate my winsome lover
Tell him I’ve had others at my breast
But tell him he has held my heart
And only now am I a virgin
I confess, I confess

Love my love thing
Love is surely gospel…

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

036: Laura Nyro, ‘Sweet Blindness’ (“Eli & the 13th Confession”)
154: Laura Nyro, ‘Save the Country’
170: Laura Nyro, ‘Luckie’ (“Eli & the 13th Confession”)
182: The Shirelles, ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’

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201: Bob Dylan, ‘All Along the Watchtower’

Posted by jeff on Aug 29, 2014 in Rock, Song Of the week

Bob Dylan – ‘All Along the Watchtower’

994055_582774828409764_522455951_nI set aside several days last week to catch up on reading my fan mail, when I came across this one:

Dear Jeff, I’ve been following your blog faithfully for years and enjoy it most of the time (especially that one about Blind Willie Greenberg’s “I Ate Your Cat, Now You Bite My Dog”), although you certainly should be talking more about Texas swing. You wrote last week that you consider “John Wesley Harding” one of your “Top 10” albums (that is a pretty cheesy concept, don’t you think, Jeff?), but that you “almost never” listen to it. Well, Jeff, I hardly know what to say. How would you feel if I wrote a lyric “Oh, that SoTW blog is fine/But to read it I never seem to have the inclination nor the time”??

Can you imagine my unmitigated mortification? My utter chagrin? So we begin our third centenary of posts with a rectification: Rehabilitating John Wesley Harding.

John Wesley Hardin

John Wesley Hardin

For the innocents, ignorants and yung ‘uns amongst you—that’s a joke. I was employing irony, because Bob Dylan so patently needs nothing from me (or anyone), especially not JWH. It’s perhaps the most ‘serious’ album to come out of the entire rock oeuvre – ‘serious’ in the sense of intellectually profound, affectively incisive and craftsmanly masterful. Bob Dylan at his best. Which is to say the art of our time at its best. For time capsules, for satellites to distant universes, for future generations: this is what we had to offer.

From January 1964 to May 1966, Dylan released five generation-defining albums. Not defining in the sense of ‘explaining the nature of’, but in the sense of ‘determining the boundaries of’. We would wait at the record store on the day of the release of a new album of Dylan (and The Beatles). Standing in line we’d ponder, “I wonder where he’s taking us now? What will be our landscape be for the next year?” Little did we know that we’d still be pondering those same questions 50 years later.

Après le Deluge

Après le Deluge

In July, 1966, two months after the release of the seminal “Blonde on Blonde”, Dylan broke his neck in a motorcycle accident. Rumors were rife: he’s a paraplegic; he’s permanently out of commission. We knew nothing. In December, 1967, “John Wesley Harding” was released, to our utter bewilderment.

“BoB” had been a living nightmare – electric, haunted, amphetamine-fevered: 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/…The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face/Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place.

Joker

Joker

And then comes “John Wesley Harding”, 12 minimalist 3-verse songs, acoustic guitar/gentle bass/brushed drums, rife with biblical imagery and judiciously crafted clichés, a landscape of wide-open spaces and allusions to the antiquated, the world of a man still dazed from a personal tsunami, gingerly embracing the time-tried. If it’s been here for a long time, it has some dimensionless gravitas. Dylan presents us with the dialectics of The Desperado and The Destitute. The Landlord and the Homeless. The Immigrant and The Enfranchised. The Deceiver and The Deceived. Frankie Lee and Judas Priest. The Joker and The Thief. And the mortal, moral ground between them.

This is Bob Dylan the survivor, seriously addressing serious issues, taking stock après le deluge. Remember what Noah did after 40 days of being cooped up with everything from aardvarks to zebras? He sets foot on dry (well, muddy) land, and what does he see? Nothing. The aftermath of absolute holocaust. A cleansing. An existential reboot. So what does Noah do? What would anyone do? He thanks God.

Thief

Thief

In the words of a song from “The Basement Tapes”, which Dylan was recording at the same time as “JWH”: “Strap yourself to a tree with roots, you ain’t going nowhere.”

From the cover to the liner notes (do yourself a favor, revisit them; they’re Dylan at his very finest) through the 12 songs, Dylan reveals a unified, variegated vision. Each with its own corner of the universe, together adding up to a coherent, disturbing attempt at resolution of the disparate and irreconcilable.

The most disturbing, the most patently visionary song of the 12 is ‘All Along the Watchtower’. The lyric can be distilled thus:
Joker:             The world is intolerably harsh.
Thief:             Live with it.
Narrator:       Ominous things lie ahead.

Prophet

Prophet

Not very comforting, I admit. There are prophets of doom, and there are prophets of comfort. But Dylan is no prophet at all (Time and Newsweek notwithstanding). A prophet is claimed (by himself or others) to have been contacted by God and to serve as an intermediary with humanity. Dylan is a mere medium, all veils and masks and giving you a glimpse of what should have been and what yet might be. But has no obligation to tell Dylanists anything.

Bob Dylan has no God. At least not in December, 1967. A dozen years later he would have a whole series of them. But at this point, the whole vision is on him, take it or leave it. We all took it. And the world changed direction. From rocketing forward faster and louder and higher to – wait a minute. Ssh. Ssh. Just breathe. Relax a moment. And think about what’s going on. Live with it.

So what’s going on in this song? We have an intercourse between two 2-dimensional, Kafkaesque figures. (Let that roll around your mind a bit, just how much Bob sounds here like Franz sans guitar.) The third verse is eschatological (relating to The End), a portent of doom. But is it really apocalyptic (i.e., alluding to the secrets revealed to the prophet about the structure of the heavens, the future, the end of days, angels)? Does the narrator know things? I don’t think so.

Singer

Singer

I think the narrator, and hence the narration, is at most a barometer, a weather vane, a harbinger. Not a bearer of answers. And as he’s long known—you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Now he’s providing a service, a wake-up call. But it’s us who need to get ourselves up and moving.

The imagery could hardly be more profoundly frightening, Dylan at his finest. Even if he snitches a bit from Isaiah 21:6–9:

כי כה אמר אלי ה’ לך העמד המצפה אשר יראה יגיד
For thus the Lord said to me: ‘Go, set a watchman; what he sees, let him declare.’

וראה רכב צמד פרשים רכב חמור רכב גמל והקשיב קשב רב-קשב
And when he sees a troop, horsemen by pairs, a troop of asses, a troop of camels, let him heed it most attentively.

ויקרא אריה על-מצפה ה’ אנכי עמד תמיד יומם ועל-משמרתי אנכי נצב כל-הלילות
And he shall cry like a lion: ‘Upon the watchtower, O Lord, I always stand all day on my watch, I am at my post all night.’

והנה-זה בא רכב איש צמד פרשים ויען ויאמר נפלה נפלה בבל וכל-פסילי אלהיה שבר לארץ
And, behold, here it comes, a troop of men, horsemen by pairs.
And he spoke and said: ‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon; and all the graven images of her gods are broken unto the ground.’

an-alternate-shot-from-john-wesley-harding

Rock Band

Two Riders

Two Riders

‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon.’ Well, that’s conclusive. And comforting! But we’re living 2500 years later, and the answers – some of them, anyway – that worked then no longer hold. The world is complex, the slope is slippery, and even time isn’t what it used to be. Sorry, Joker, there is no way out of here. Yeah, it sucks. Live with it. The hour is getting late.

Look, for example, at God. He had a similar dilemma. Noah stepped off the ark, saw that only he and his family and passengers remained After the Flood, and made a burnt offering. “And God smelled the savory smell; and God said in His heart, “No more will I curse the ground for Man, because the impulse of Man’s heart is evil from youth, and I will no more punish all living things as I just did.”

I made Man, and I made the world for him. He has an evil impulse, and I’m not pleased with that. But I guess I’ll just have to reconcile myself to the world as it turned out.

And what about those two riders? What tidings are they bearing? It don’t sound good!

Well, don’t ask me. I have no idea. But they are fast approaching, so maybe we’ll have an answer soon. Tune in next week.

All Along the Watchtower

“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief,
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”

“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke,
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl,
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

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