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126: Bob Dylan, ‘Tears of Rage’ (The Basement Tapes)

Posted by jeff on May 1, 2019 in Rock, Song Of the week

Tears of Rage‘ (The Basement Tapes, Take #1, from the Columbia”The Bootleg Series” 2014)

©Elliot Landy

In the Summer of Love, 1967, while the Beatles were busy overtracking “Sgt. Pepper”, Bob Dylan was holed up in the basement of a pink house in upstate New York with a bunch of friends, playing hokey old country and western music standards at a leisurely tempo while he convalesced from a motorpsycho-broken neck.

Fortunately, Dylan and his touring-band buddies, The Hawks (later The Band), turned on a home tape recorder.  The resulting “Basement Tapes” – a collection of songs which are hilarious, wise, passionate, and pained, and include several grave masterpieces – leaked out as the very first illegal bootleg records (“The Great White Wonder”, “The Troubled Troubadour”–I owned and treasured them both), and here and there in minor cover versions. Then a year later The Band recorded definitive versions of the three most serious songs on their first album “Music from Big Pink” (‘This Wheel’s on Fire’, ‘I Shall Be Released’, ‘Tears of Rage’). For an incredible, picaresque story about the house itself, see SoTW 049.

©Elliot Landy

So “The Basement Tapes” had no direct impact on America when they were recorded in 1967. But they are The Watershed, the point at which the dominant aesthetic of the Western world turned from the supersonic to the simple. These recordings were seminal in shaping the way people view the world till today. They contained the seed for the mindset of the ‘organic’, the acoustic, the spiritual. “Strap yourself to a tree with roots, you ain’t going nowhere.”

June, 1966, America was exploding. Over 500 American soldiers died in Vietnam that month, the first race riots were breaking out in the Black ghettos of Chicago and other cities. Sympathizers of the nascent counterculture were listening to the new releases “Freak Out!”,” Yesterday and Today” (including the original release of ‘I’m Only Sleeping’, ‘Doctor Robert’, and ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’), “Aftermath”, “Daydream”, the debut albums of Love and the Mamas and the Papas.

©Elliot Landy

But the acknowledged leader of the pack was Bob Dylan, popularly proclaimed ‘prophet of the generation’, despite all his disclaimers. He was touring at breakneck speed with his new electric band, rabidly booed by dozens, listened to passionately by thousands. “Blonde on Blonde” was released on June 27, shouting “Everybody must get stoned!” Dylan practiced what he preached, ingesting large quantities of amphetamines and “who-knows what else”. Two days later he broke his neck in a motorcycle accident and disappeared from the public eye for a year and a half, till the release of “John Wesley Harding” in December, 1967.

Critic Mike Marqusee: “At the very moment when avant-gardism was sweeping through new cultural corridors, Dylan decided to dismount. The dandified, aggressively modern surface was replaced by a self-consciously unassuming and traditional garb. The giddiness embodied, celebrated, dissected in the songs of the mid-sixties had left him exhausted. He sought safety in a retreat to the countryside that was also a retreat in time, or more precisely, a search for timelessness.”

©Elliot Landy

The Basement Tapes are rough, unpolished, rehearsal recordings. That’s okay. Perhaps it’s part of their charm, their intimacy. Many of Da Vinci’s greatest masterpieces have reached us only as sketches, right?

Guitarist Robbie Robertson: “One of the things is that if you played loud in the basement, it was really annoying, because it was a cement-walled room. So we played in a little huddle: if you couldn’t hear the singing, you were playing too loud.”

Organist Garth Hudson, “We were doing seven, eight, ten, sometimes fifteen songs a day. Some were old ballads and traditional songs … but others Bob would make up as he went along. … We’d play the melody, he’d sing a few words he’d written, and then make up some more, or else just mouth sounds or even syllables as he went along…It amazed me, Bob’s writing ability. How he would come in, sit down at the typewriter, and write a song. And what was amazing was that almost every one of those songs was funny.” Well, many of them. Not ‘Tears of Rage’.

Columbia Records released a 2-LP “The Basement Tapes” in 1975, questionable both in its audio quality and in its selection. A third of the tracks weren’t connected to Dylan, and a number of the major songs were omitted. In the 1990s a 5-CD bootleg set surfaced, “The Genuine Basement Tapes”, which includes virtually all the recordings from those months.

“Million Dollar Bash”:

But my mind always goes back to bootleg where I learned the core great songs from the session. There was a series of hilarious, comic psychodelerious virtuoso romps: ‘Million Dollar Bash’, ‘Open the Door, Homer’, ‘Yeah Heavy and a Bottle of Bread’, ‘Please Mrs Henry’, ‘Lo and Behold’, ‘Tiny Montgomery’.  Just one taste: “Well, I looked at my watch, I looked at my wrist, I punched myself in the face with my fist. I took my potatoes down to be mashed, then I made it over to that million dollar bash.”

And there’s a series of brilliant, inspired songs flitting between the comic and the fantastic and the oh-so-serious: ‘Nothing Was Delivered’, ‘Quinn the Eskimo’, ‘Too Much of Nothing’, ‘Crash on the Levee’, ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’. The last of these is ostensibly humorous. But there was enough gravity in it to serve as a catalyst for a 180° change in my life, no exaggeration. We took our music seriously back then.

“You Ain’t Going Nowhere” (improvised lyrics):

And there’s no music more serious than the three songs from that basement that The Band would record for their first album: the cosmic, apocalyptic ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’; ‘I Shall Be Released’, Dylan’s existential meditation on that little question: ‘What is the point of living a life of such pain?’; and our SoTW, ‘Tears of Rage’, a searing cry of the pain of betrayal.

L to R: Manuel, Dylan

If ‘I Shall Be Released’ is Dylan’s “Hamlet”, ‘Tears of Rage’ is his “King Lear”. Before this, Dylan had never collaborated. But bassist Rick Danko provided the music for ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’, and pianist Richard Manuel the music for ‘Tears of Rage’.

Manuel: “He came down to the basement with a piece of typewritten paper … and he just said, ‘Have you got any music for this?’ … I had a couple of musical movements that fit … so I just elaborated a bit, because I wasn’t sure what the lyrics meant. I couldn’t run upstairs and say, ‘What’s this mean, Bob: “Now the heart is filled with gold as if it was a purse”?‘”

I sure empathize with Richard. For most of my life I’ve been as puzzled by the lyrics to the song as I am moved by them. A strange thing, poetry–you can puzzle at it and puzzle at it, decade after decade, and you know you’ll never ‘solve’ it. If you could, if there were a Hidden Answer in there, it wouldn’t evoke that curiosity, that obsessive probing and plumbing and pondering.

Dylan has some great songs that can be parsed as allegory, stories directly paralleling something else–‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (a drug dealer), ‘Went to See the Gypsy’ (Elvis),  ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ (a straight guy at a gay party). But most of his great, evocative works defy such ‘solutions’. What does ‘As I Went Out One Morning’ mean? Well, who knows? And we’ll only diminish it by trying to tie it down to a specific reading.

©Elliot Landy

Dylan himself wrote a wonderful, wise spoof on ‘solving’ his lyrics as the liner notes to “John Wesley Harding”. I heartily recommend reading them. Nonetheless, I’m going to try to provide a running reading of ‘Tears of Rage’ not as a Cymbal symbol, but as scaffolding, a reading which will help us examine it closely, but needs to be dissembled when the work is through.

We carried you in our arms on Independence Day
And now you’d throw us all aside and put us on our way.
Oh what dear daughter ’neath the sun would treat a father so–
To wait upon him hand and foot and always tell him, “No?”

A father addressing his daughter. His love is total, his intentions are pure. He will carry her in his arms to take her to participate in a public celebration of communion and community. She, in turn, fulfills her filial duties–but mechanically, denying him the love he has so unselfishly bestowed on her. With the cruelty of coldness, she won’t even leave him room to complain: ‘I do what is required of me by custom and tradition. But the most important thing can’t be legislated, and that you will not get from me.’ Why? What would move her to reject his love, to turn her back on his paternal dedication, to deny requiting him his unreserved dedication to her? There is no answer provided, only the acutest of pain, that of a child’s rejection, the betrayal of unadulterated trust and unbounded love.

Tears of rage, tears of grief, why am I always the one who must be the thief?
Come to me now, you know we’re so alone, and life is brief.

©Elliot Landy

What is he seeking that will impoverish her? Will she be diminished by returning his love? Au contraire. So why? The father is left with no avenue for response. It is a question which can’t be asked, let alone answered. Love cannot be dictated or demanded. The pain of senseless, inexplicable rejection. The speaker can only cry, rage, grieve, pitifully plead. He has no other response available to him.

We pointed out the way for you to go and scratched your name in sand,
Though you just thought it was nothing more than a place for you to stand.
I want you to know that while we watched you discover there was no one true
That I myself, I remember now, thought it was it was a childish thing to do.

Our narrative strains here. Who is the ‘we’? It seems to extend beyond the narrator (and the mother). The community in its role as educator? The amorphous society at large? The pointer they give her seems genuinely altruistic, if transitory. She misperceives it. It is a means, she understands it only as an end. The observers are accused of being childish—were they mockingly waiting for her to be disillusioned? Why is the loving father associating with a less-than-loving ‘we’? Albeit he distances himself from them; but he had nonetheless been party to their cynical stance.

Tears of rage, tears of grief, why must I always be the thief?
Come to me now, you know we’re so alone, and life is brief.

Cry, Dad, cry.

It was all very painless when you ran out to receive
All that false instruction which we never could believe.
And now the heart is filled with gold as if it was a purse;
But, oh, what kind of love is this which goes from bad to worse?

Is this ‘instruction’ equated with the pointer from the previous verse, or contrasted with it? I could argue either case, and neither seems conclusive or convincing to me. In any case, a pyrrhic victory has been achieved: the heart is full of gold: her dutifulness. But the heart isn’t a purse, is it? It’s not gold that we’re seeking. It’s something much more precious.

Tears of rage, tears of grief, why must I always be the thief?
Come to me now, you know we’re so alone and life is brief

This love the father treasures so–“why is my desire for it unlawful?” he asks himself. “What is my crime? I carried you in my arms, I ask for nothing in return other than a measure of the unconditional love I by nature gave you. But it is unnaturally denied me, and life is irretrievably passing.” Just as the love the father feels is more precious than gold, so the pain he feels is sharper than any physical blade. It is the pain of his inexplicable, senseless rejection.

Let’s take down the scaffold now. I don’t see the song as an allegory. When he wrote it, Dylan had only just become a father. He was presumably happy in his new marriage. So where did this come from? It’s been said that ‘Tears of Rage’ was the first expression of the pain of betrayal felt by many of America’s Vietnam war veterans, or by extension many of its young citizens. Perhaps this is the rejection being expressed, that of political disenfranchisement.

Who knows? Not Richard Manuel, not me, probably not Bob Dylan. But the song is nonetheless a work of profound passion, evocative of the deepest pain I can imagine.

Next week we’ll see how The Band reworked this sketch into a treatment incomparably more crafted, and no less impassioned.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy: 

016: Bob Dylan, ‘Percy’s Song’

259: Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau: ‘Marcie’ (Joni Mitchell), ‘Don’t Think Twice’ (Dylan)

008: ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’, Fairport Convention (Bob Dylan)

190: Bob Dylan, ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’

176: Chuck Berry, ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ (Bob Dylan, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’)

248: Bob Dylan, ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’

201: Bob Dylan, ‘All Along the Watchtower’

207: The Beatles, ‘Rocky Raccoon’; and Bob Dylan, ‘Frankie Lee and Judas Priest’/’Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’

262: Bob Dylan, ‘Went to See the Gypsy’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

164: Bob Dylan, ‘Tangled Up in Blue’

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

087: Bob Dylan, ‘Black Diamond Bay’

 

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6

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

Posted by jeff on Nov 1, 2018 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.

I 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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3

262: Bob Dylan, ‘Went to See the Gypsy’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

Posted by jeff on May 12, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week

Dylan1970‘Went to See the Gypsy’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

‘Went to See the Gypsy’ (“New Morning”)

‘Spanish is the Loving Tongue’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

‘This Evening So Soon’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

‘Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

‘Pretty Saro’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

From 1963 to 1967, Bob Dylan released the seven consecutive great albums (eight if you count the then-unreleased Basement Tapes. No one else, not even The Beatles, has made seven consecutive records that are at the absolute top of their game. It can legitimately be argued that no one else has made a single album that can stand with these eight, but that’s a different question.

Then came the motorcycle crash, two years of silence, and “Nashville Skyline” (1969), a clichéd, crooning bewilderment to his fans. I remember its reception well. There were those who said it was great, beyond our grasp; there were those who said it was regrettable schlock; the majority of us are still scratching our heads.

71wTIJj+1ZL._SL1280_Then came “Self-Portrait” (1970), a hodgepodge double album of covers of contemporaries (‘The Boxer’), traditional standards (‘Copper Kettle’), and sub-standard live cuts (‘She Belongs to Me’). Greil Marcus’s Rolling Stone review of the album opened “What is this shit?” It was Dylan’s first commercial and universally critical failure.

Four months later, he released “New Morning”, a laid-back paean to family life. In my opinion, it stands in line with his great works. Not everyone agrees.

In the late 60s, some anonymous hippie entrepreneurs began printing up “bootleg” recordings of Dylan, featuring cuts from the Basement tapes. I was a proud owner of ‘The Masked Marauder’ and ‘The Great White Wonder’, the first and most famous bootlegs. In 1975, Columbia convinced Dylan to capitalize on the great public interest in these recordings, and released a double LP.

Another Self Portrait_1In 1991 Columbia began releasing official “Bootleg Series” CDs, of uneven quality and interest. To the utter amazement of many, there were indisputable gems among the dross, such as the brilliant ‘Blind Willie McTell’, inexplicably excluded from release on the mediocre+ 1983 “Infidels”.

In 2013, they laid on us “Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series, Vol. 10”– mostly outtakes from “Self-Portrait”, with a few uninteresting alternate takes from “Nashville Skyline” and a few abysmal ones from “New Morning”with horrifying orchestration by the once deified Al Kooper. Outtakes from “Self-Portrait”? C’mon Bob – wasn’t the original bad enough?

But Dylan is Dylan, and there’s a reason he won the Nobel Prize. “Another Self Portrait” contains a number of unqualified, indisputable wonders that somehow justify the original disaster. As Rolling Stone put it, “a great record lurked inside all along.” I’m gonna chew the fat about a few of my favorites here.

  • The Road

    The Road

    Pretty Saro’is an English ballad that originated in the early 18th century, disappeared for a hundred years, resurfaced (via oral tradition in the Appalachians) in the mid-20th century, as recorded by Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Bert Jansch and Mr Z himself.
    Dylan’s version is more direct, heartfelt, compassionate, and downright pretty than you’d believe. It’s just a heartbreaker of a song.

  • ‘Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song’ was written and recorded by Tom Paxton in 1970.
  • ‘This Evening So Soon’ is Dylan’s version of Bob Gibson’s “Tell Ol’ Bill”, here performed by Dave Van Ronk (yes, the subject of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’), an old cohort of Dylan’s from the Village days.
  • The words of ‘Spanish is the Loving Tongue’ were written as “A Border Affair” in 1907 by the Poet Laureate of South Dakota, Charles Badger Clark and set to music in 1925 by Billy Simon (a real cowboy!). It was originally recorded by Tex Fletcher (1936), but the best we could come up with is Texas Jim Robertson’s 1941 version. Sue me. Bob’s version is—oh, Bob! That piano! That voice! Oh, Bob!
  • Well, Well, Well -- Elvis (foreground), Dylan (hidden)

    Well, Well, Well — Elvis (foreground), Dylan (hidden)

    And our SoTW, ‘Went to See the Gypsy’, which we’ve known and loved since it appeared on “New Morning”. The song has often been parsed as Dylan’s depiction of a meeting with Elvis in a Las Vegas-ish hotel – which never took place. They never met, in reality. But this fictitious non-meeting is memorable, both the released version (Dylan on piano, Kooper on organ, the whole band keeping the tempo moving forward) and the bootleg (Dylan on acoustic, probably David Bromberg on acoustic lead).

So it goes like this:

  1. I went to see the gypsy. I met him, but nothing happened.
  2. I snuck out on the pretext of making a phone call.
  3. A go-go girl caught me and said, “Try again, he’s a real guru.”
  4. I watched the lights on the river.
  5. I went back upstairs to his suite, but he was gone.
    (I went back downstairs to look for her, but) the dancing girl was gone as well.
  6. I thought about my childhood.
Meeting of Titans--Dylan (l), Presley (r)

Meeting of Titans–Dylan (l), Presley (r)

One other point that’s always intrigued me about the song. We’re at the height of drama, the meeting of titans, on the edge of our chairs, and what happens? “I went down to the lobby to make a small call out” (in both versions). A ‘small’ call, nothing that couldn’t have waited.

What does all this mean? I have no idea. If I were being paid to teach sophomore English, I could make up some sort of scenario that encompasses all that, but it would leave a bad taste in my mouth, and make the kids hate college even more than they already do.

Rescue Team

Rescue Team

There are differences in lyrics; nothing in the league of the “Blood on the Tracks” material, but telling nonetheless:

Bootleg: “He smiled when he saw me coming, and he wished me well.”
Official: “He smiled when he saw me coming, and he said ‘Well, well, well!’”
Giant win for O.

Bootleg: “How are you?” he asked of me/And I asked the same of him.”
Official: “How are you?” he said to me/I said it back to him.”
Giant win for O.

Official: “Outside the lights were shining on the river of tears/I watched them from the distance with the music in my ears”.
Bootleg: “Oh, the lights were on the river shining from outside/I contemplated every move, or at least I tried”.
A tie. Both are strained, underwhelming.

Kitchenette

Kitchenette

But the way he picks that up for the knockout ending? He couldn’t find the pretty dancing girl, “So I watched the sun come rising on/in that little Minnesota town.” Yow. Where did that come from?

But it fits so well with the dreamlike, non-sequiturial goings-on. In tone, and even in sense – with a mind-tingling stretch of the imagination. ‘What am I doing here, I’m just a boy from Hibbing?’

But what the heck? This isn’t James Taylor talking about Carolina or Joni Mitchell talking about Canada. Dylan doesn’t go back to Minnesota. He’s deleted it from his memory map. He changed his name, invented a new biography. So where did this suadade come from all of a sudden in 1970? Ladies and gentlemen, meet Bob Dylan. Then wait 20 seconds and you get to meet another one.

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Tracks

Official: “From that little Minnesota town” is repeated, with a resolution in major on the second phrase.
Bootleg: He says it only once, leaves it hanging in an unresolved minor chord, with a lovely, long instrumental outro.
Big win for B.

Both versions are convincing renditions of an enigmatic, intriguing song.  If I had to choose a favorite between the two, I’d choose both. But if you’re trying to make sense of all this, you’re barking up the wrong Gypsy. Welcome to Dylanland.

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259: Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau: ‘Marcie’ (Joni Mitchell), ‘Don’t Think Twice’ (Dylan)

Posted by jeff on Mar 24, 2017 in Jazz, New Acoustic, Rock, Song Of the week

122815-r4-f3_wide-3f58a2451f6181b363e9f119d2fe83033cd14290-s900-c85Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau — ‘Marcie’

Joni Mitchell — ‘Marcie’

Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau — ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’

Bob Dylan — ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’

I’ve made it a guiding principle of this blog to focus on music I love. Hence, you only know the jolly, positive, coddling Jeff.
Alas, there’s an alter ego lurking in the nether depths of my Critic’s Psyche: the censorious, condemnatory, disparaging, judgmental Jeff, the one those near and dear to me have the misfortune of suffering through.

maxresdefaultSo this week I’m going to share with you not one but two! new covers of great songs from not one but two! artists I greatly admire. Except I’m going to step on some toes and sour-milk some sacred cows along the way. Bear with me, I promise there will be a happy ending.

Chris Thile (b. 1981) and Brad Mehldau (b. 1970) just released a double CD. I have great admiration for the former, the preeminent jazz pianist around today; immense respect for the latter, a certified MacArthur wunderkind. But I find it a mediocre disk, even boring. I’ve listened to it maybe 25 times in the last two weeks, and most of it still just wafts past my ears.

Perhaps it’s something in the sound of the mandolin. Say what you want, it sounds to me like a toy guitar from the Ozarks, no matter how brilliant the notes are.

Perhaps it’s the fact that Mehldau tends to disappear in collaboration, displaying excessive modesty when he should be leading the band.
That’s why I always prefer listening to him solo. Nowhere to hide, Brad – it’s all painfully vulnerable, exposed, grave and seriously profound, whether he’s playing Bach or Radiohead.

However, there are two cuts on the album that made my head spin. Both are covers of great songs by great artists. And in one way or another, both improve on the original.

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11e499000e1ae934ee0afb385d9863ca‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, from Dylan’s first real album (of originals).

I don’t say that lightly. The very idea of someone improving on Dylan’s treatment of his own song is fundamentally questionable. “No one sings Dylan like Dylan.” In one of our first SoTWs we wrote about exactly such a case—Fairport Convention singing ‘I’ll Keep It with Mine’. But there, if you’ll pardon the hairsplitting, it’s more Dylan’s fault than Sandy Denny’s achievement. He wrote a gentle, intriguing song and shouted it out, banging on the piano. Fairport just laid back and gave it a suitable, straightforward reading.

Not so with ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, one of Dylan’s first ‘hits’ (popularized by the fine Peter, Paul and Mary cover from late 1963, half a year after the release of “Freewheelin’”). Dylan “borrowed” a lot of the song from fellow folkie Paul Clayton’s ‘Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons’, but the scathing, caustic dismissal of the girl (in retrospect, of course) and the relationship they did/didn’t have is all Dylan aged 22 par excellence. Dylan raised snide, furious, finger-pointing name-calling to a Nobel Prize-level art form.

Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice’ is ironic. He doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t think twice. He’s beating her up verbally, machine-gunning her with his esprits de l’escalier, getting in all the last punches beneath the belt after the bell has rung. It’s all condescension and self-righteousness. He means that he’s going to leave her with a pummeling that will make her regret losing the wonderful Him 10,000 times a day while she’s recuperating.

Thile-Chris-07Chris Thile tells a very different story. It’s all insouciance, nonchalance, cool. What we adults call indifference. There’s no recrimination, no great regrets, because, really, who cares? Who needs a real relationship? Who wants commitment? We were together, it’s getting messy, I’m out of here before I get anything sticky on me.

When Dylan sings “We never did too much talking anyway”, the subtext is ‘little you wasn’t capable of entering a dialogue with wonderful me.”
When Thile sings “But we never really did that much talking anyway”, the subtext is ‘What’s the big deal? It’s not like we talked or anything.”

When Dylan sings “I gave her my heart by she wanted my soul”, he’s accusing her of predatory rapaciousness.
When Thile sings it, with a wonderfully expressive squeal, he’s saying ‘Hey, she tried to scratch my Teflon, man! I’m out of here!’

Now, the question is whether the song holds the potential for both readings. Admittedly, Chris has the distinct advantage of coming from a generation that doesn’t give a fuck about anything.

Want to hear my opinion? I have a lot of respect for Chris’s reading. Dylan’s is a perfect example of why I admire him so much and have no affection for him. He’s really quite obnoxious in his self-righteousness. Chris? He may be as uncommitted as a jellyfish, but at least there are no pretentions about it.

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Photo: Rod Pennington

‘Marcie’, from Joni Mitchell’s first album

I’ve written a series of postings about Joni’s early albums: ‘Cactus Tree’ from the first album; ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’ from the second; ‘For Free’ and ‘Woodstock’ from the third; ‘Blue’ and ‘River’ from the fourth. Someday I’ll get to the enigmatic, elusive ‘For the Roses’.

The first album occupies a place in my heart for a number of reasons, as I wrote in SoTW 106: She was unknown, she was mine. It was the first collaboration of David Crosby (producer) and Stephen Stills (bass), a harbinger of things to come. It was the music she was singing when I met her in Nashville with Bob Dylan on the Johnny Cash show.

It’s a groundbreaking album. Together with Laura Nyro (who released her first album in February, 1967, and her masterpiece “Eli & the 13th Confession” the same month as Joni’s first, March 1968) they gave a new voice to the nascent new womanhood.

But most of all, it’s just a very fine album. Every song on Joni’s first album is a perfectly crafted gem of a vignette from her first taste of independence as a newly liberated woman, Greenwich Village.

I sat up straight and smiled broadly when I first heard Chris Thile’s ‘Marcie’. It was for me an utterly refreshing look at an old friend. It’s a fine example of the justification for covers, shining new light on great music. Not a revelation, perhaps, but certainly a revealing of truths I had previously not seen.

hqdefaultIf ‘Don’t Think Twice’ is all about Thile’s plinky mandolin, here it’s Brad’s elegant, legato accompaniment that carries the arrangement. Even Thile’s vocal is serving the tone set by Brad.

Thile/Mehldau’s reading isn’t so different from the original. It’s the same girl with the same predicament – living her life, but thinking only of the man not calling. But it does shed light some of the limitations of Joni’s music. That’s not a criticism – Joni’s reading is full, convincing, unassailable, memorable. But you’ve always got the road not taken – every choice you make means passing on the alternative, never to be explored. At least until someone comes along and covers your song.

Chris’s treatment is so much more intimate, fraught with so much empathy. In contrast, Joni sounds removed, distant. As painfully confessional as Joni is at her best, the exposure is in the lyrics. Her carefully controlled tremelo sounds just a little standoffish in comparison with Chris’s candor. She is here at her most precious –just a little too delicate, too refined. She’s presenting a finely crafted portrait. Chris is lamenting the predicament of a Marcie he feels for.

Still, he’s singing Joni’s song. It’s the difference between a creative artist and a performing artist. You gotta give the nod to creator. You just got to.

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You don’t need “Chris Thile/Brad Mehldau” to justify the standing of Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell. People will be singing their praises and their songs “somewhere ages and ages hence”. But they are not the end of even their own story. They’ve given us – and Brad and Chris – a legacy to explore, to build on, and maybe even here and there to serve as an inspiration for genuine and new readings that amplify and enhance the originals.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

Brad Mehldau SoTWs

Chris Thile SoTWs

Bob Dylan SoTWs

Joni Mitchell SoTWs

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