141: Joni Mitchell, ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’

Posted by jeff on Jun 20, 2019 in Rock, Song Of the week

Joni Mitchell, 1970 (Photo by Martin Mills/Getty Images)

Joni Mitchell, ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’

“Hey, what about Joni Mitchell’s early stuff?” said the note I got from reader J.M. this week. Good question, J. I did write about her a relatively minor song from a relatively minor album: ‘Cactus Tree’, from her very first venture, “Songs to a Seagull”. Well, one can’t pay too much attention to Joni Mitchell, the unchallenged poetess laureate of popular music, so today we are going to visit her second, the much-more commercially successful “Clouds”.  And of course we’ll go for a lesser-known song, ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’.

“Clouds” is an album I don’t listen to often, populated by songs I know too well (‘Chelsea Morning’, the overly covered and abused ‘Both Sides Now’), songs I find inaccessible (‘Tin Soldier’, ‘Roses Blue’, ‘The Fiddle and the Drum’), and a number I find attractive but not overwhelming (‘The Gallery’, ‘Songs to Aging Children Come’). Still, I gave it a few serious relistenings, and reached the same old conclusion: damn, she’s one fine artist.


Even the songs I’m less drawn to – you look at them seriously and you find them brimming with impeccable craftsmanship, passion, humor, elegance, intelligence, wisdom.

Joni’s not a poetess, she’s a singer-songwriter. Poetry is a medium in which the words themselves are the materials. For a long time now we’ve related to poetry as words on the page, even though it was once a performance medium. Songs are a combination of words and melody and harmony and arrangement and recording and performance. The lyrics, fine as they may be, are not conceived to exist in a context devoid of at least some of those other elements.

Joni Mitchell, 1969

What about Dylan? Dylan’s a genius. He’s written some damn good prose poetry (the liner notes to “Bringing It All Back Home” and “John Wesley Harding” are both well worth spending a lot of time on). His lyrics are the standard by which serious lyrics are measured. But they’re not poetry. They’re an essential part of a complex called Song. Don’t try to sell ‘Chimes of Freedom’ on the page. It wasn’t written for the page, it was written to be nasaled and shouted and banged on the guitar.

What about Leonard Cohen? Well, he was a published poet before he became a singer/songwriter. “Suzanne Takes You Down” was from his first book, “Parasites of Heaven”. From my vague memory, there are discrepancies between the lyrics and the poems, but who cares? An exception to prove the rule, and let’s get back to the fairer Canadian.

Joni’s sometimes deceptive, because her songs are so often so darn pretty, and singable, and full of hooks and melodies and all that stuff that makes pop songs so attractive. But if we look beyond that, we’ll see just how much of an artisan she is. Each and every song is a carefully crafted work, the product of a mistressful artist who happens to possess a magnanimous soul.

Leonard Cohen (left) and Joni Mitchell, Newport Folk Festival, 1967

Let’s take for example “The Gallery” describing her painter-lover, three stanzas and a coda, a narrative of the curve of their relationship, deftly employing an extended metaphor. It’s clever and a half, even when forced (When I first saw your gallery/I liked the ones of ladies/Then you began to hang up me/You studied to portray me). Heck, she was only 26. But there are also lyrics that begin to transcend the cute and the clever and the honest: I was left to winter here/While you went west for pleasure/And now you’re flying bock this way/Like some lost homing pigeon/They’ve monitored your brain, you say/And changed you with religion. Now, that’s interesting! It’s also emotionally naked and a bit frighteningly honest.

They say that Joni’s intimates (and there were apparently many) were frequently shaken by the directness of the references to the details their lives. I’m no expert on Joni’s bio, but I was raised in the school of critical reading that says “I don’t really give a hoot about the relationship to the artist’s life, the work either stands on its own terms or it doesn’t.” I’m perfectly content to let my imagination wander through the very rich and evocative and intriguing and convincing world that Joni creates.

“Clouds” is a major step past “Songs to a Seagull”. Even ‘Chelsea Morning’, the song most reminiscent of the ebullient excitement of her new life in The City is more refined musically and artistically than anything on the first album. It’s a virtuoso performance vocally and instrumentally, showcasing among other elements her use of open tuning.

Guitars are usually tuned in such a way that you need to press down on strings to create a chord, but there are a variety of non-standard tunings make all six strings accord harmonically into, for example, a major chord. This enables the musician to strum more vigorously, to play a series of chords by simply barring the neck rather than fingering chords. This gives different voicings to the chords, including a distinct resonance from all open strings. It’s often used on slide guitars and in the blues; Keith and Brian Jones and The Allmans and even Dylan have used it in rock; but Joni uses it exclusively.

She’s also a stunning pianist, though these first two albums use only guitar (one cut excepted). I won’t be spoiling anything if I say that these two albums comprise her freshman year. Next will come “Ladies of the Canyon”, a treasure chest of widely varied songs thematically and stylistically. Less consistent perhaps, more exploratory. And then comes–yeah, you knew it before I said it–“Blue”. But we get ahead of ourselves.

Joni Mitchell, 1970 (Photo by Martin Mills/Getty Images)

There’s a lot of emotional growth here in “Clouds” as well. ‘Both Sides Now’, the iconic paean to disillusionment, is the underbelly of all that manic elation.  I have trouble with the song today. It’s hackneyed for me, it’s been performed to death. But truisms are true. Herbie Hancock won a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Solo on his treatment of the song in his tribute album to Joni, “River: The Joni Letters” (Thom Jurek says it “feels like it is being played from the inside out”). Note also Wayne Shorter’s contribution. So who cares if I have problems with the song?

Joni chooses to open “Clouds” with ‘Tin Soldier’, a love song on paper, a dirge in performance. There are songs about Viet Nam (‘The Fiddle and The Drum’), mental illness (‘I Think I Understand’), the lunacy of the nouveau-religious (‘Roses Blue’) and a quasi-traditional folk/art gem that defies description (‘Songs to Aging Children Come’)

One expression of that new maturity is our Song of The Week, ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’. It’s perhaps less of a showpiece in terms of craftsmanship, but it’s harrowingly honest, and it’s beautiful.

She has strong feelings towards him. She wants to express them, but she’s unsure of herself. I come back to one of my recurrent thoughts about Joni, quoting myself from SoTW 106: “Much of the little I understand of the female psyche I’ve learned from Joni Mitchell. I don’t take her to be emblematic of Womanhood. She’s an individual, with a unique vision of the world, but one that is profoundly female. She has thoughts and feelings and desires and disinclinations that seem to me engendered in that other side of the fence, visions and versions that would never cross my testeronic landscape.”

‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’ could never be written by a male. But it sure does give me a glimpse of illumination of that most profound of mysteries, what goes on inside a woman. Perhaps the persona knows not where she stands, but the artist certainly does.

Funny day, looking for laughter and finding it there
Sunny day, braiding wild flowers and leaves in my hair
Picked up a pencil and wrote “I love you” in my finest hand
Wanted to send it, but I don’t know where I stand

Telephone, even the sound of your voice is still new
All alone in California and talking to you
And feeling too foolish and strange to say the words that I had planned
I guess it’s too early, ’cause I don’t know where I stand

Crickets call, courting their ladies in star-dappled green
Thickets tall, until the morning comes up like a dream
All muted and misty, so drowsy now I’ll take what sleep I can
I know that I miss you, but I don’t know where I stand
I know that I miss you, but I don’t know where I stand

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

106: Joni Mitchell, ‘Cactus Tree’
259: Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau: ‘Marcie’ (Joni Mitchell), ‘Don’t Think Twice’ (Dylan)
286: Joni Mitchell, ‘The Circle Game’

163: Joni Mitchell, ‘For Free’

177: Joni Mitchell, ‘Woodstock’

014: Woodstock, the event (Hebrew)

222: Joni Mitchell, ‘River’

215: Joni Mitchell, ‘Blue’

277: Joni Mitchell, ‘Electricity’

260: David Crosby/Joni Mitchell, ‘Yvette in English’







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127: The Band, ‘Tears of Rage’ (“Music from Big Pink”)

Posted by jeff on May 16, 2019 in Rock, Song Of the week

Last week, in SoTW 126, we presented Bob Dylan’s original performance of ‘Tears of Rage’ from “The Basement Tapes”. This week we’re presenting ‘Tears of Rage’ as it appears on The Band’s first album, “Music from Big Pink”.

The Band — ‘Tears of Rage’

L to R: Manuel, Hudson, Helm, Robertson, Danko ©Elliot Landy

In July, 1968, hippies were being beaten in Chicago, Black ghettos were on fire, RFK and MLK had been killed, Paris was under siege and Prague was invaded. “Battle lines being drawn.” Rock music was the vehicle for the younger generation to rail against parents, professors, police – louder and faster and flashier, more and more strident and abrasive and combative. Get high, get angy, get laid. Up against the wall, motherfucker.

Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding” had provoked nothing more than a collective “Huh?” “Sgt Pepper” had deteriorated into Deep Purple and Iron Butterfly and Vanilla Fudge and Steppenwolf and The Doors and Cream .

The Band painted by Bob Dylan

Then Bob Dylan’s backing band – formerly The Hawks, now the non-name The Band – released their first album. The back cover pictured a pink house (hence the title “Music from Big Pink”), and inside was a photo of five guys who looked more like the James Brothers – the gang, not the band. Even worse, they included a picture of a whole tribe of horn-rimmed honkies, captioned ‘Next of Kin’.  This was in a day when everyone else was denying that they had biological parents. Didn’t these guys know anything about being cool?

But the front cover was a primitive painting of the group by The Dylan himself. Not only that, the album featured three songs by him, two of them collaborations with The Band (music for ‘Tears of Rage’ by Richard Manuel, for ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ by Rick Danko, together with ‘I Shall Be Released’). This was at a time when Dylan no more collaborated with mortals than did The Almighty Him/Herself. So “Music from Big Pink” entered the marketplace as an authoritative word from on high, if not Dylan himself speaking, then at least his angels.

But the music? It was so strange. Nary a backbeat on the entire LP. Nothing you could dance to. No electricity. It all sounded as though it had grown up through the ground. The instruments sounded as though they had been picked off a stalk and hand-fashioned. The songs talked about family, faith, and rural life. Talk about ‘Huh?’!

Its impact was subtle but immediate. Eric Clapton heard the album and decided on the spot to break up Cream. It would take us all years to absorb the music from Big Pink – the polar opposite of everything we were experiencing at the time: ensemble music, acoustic, organic. Roots music in a wholly new style.  Five individuals performing as a single unit in a way common to jazz and chamber music, unknown in rock. Listening rather than shouting.

©Elliot Landy

The music created a new aural palette—a rhythm piano (Richard Manuel); a “fourth-dimensional” organ providing distinctive colorings and lead voices (Garth Hudson); a guitar (Robbie Robertson) pursuing a holistic sound; and a drum (Levon Helm) taking an equal creative role in the musical pastiche. Their vocals were a wonder – Levon usually taking the lead (‘The Weight’), the authentic drawling Southerner aside four Canadians; reedy Danko (‘This Wheel’s On Fire’), simultaneously vulnerable and raucous; and the miracle of Richard Manuel’s voice (‘Tears of Rage’, ‘I Shall Be Released’ in a harrowing falsetto, gut-wrenching ‘Lonesome Suzie’ – passionate, expressive, joyous, pained, his eventual suicide already foreshadowed). Producer John Simon also played a critical role in pulling it all together, playing horns with Garth, tweaking the marvelous sounds that are as much a feature of the album as the songs and the musicianship.

The Hawks 1961 ©Serge Daniloff

It is remarkable to think that this quantum shift didn’t have to occur; it was a product of Bob Dylan’s decision to pull off the fast lane.

The Hawks had been touring Canada and the South as a heavy, funky rock/rock&roll/country-tinged rhythm&blues band for five years when they were drafted to back Dylan as the band he used to electrify his sound. They were booed nightly. (I saw one of these performances—it was so raw and raunchy the rafters literally shook; Robbie’s guitar was deafening. I refrained from joining the booing only out of respect for Dylan.) Dylan crashed on his motorcycle, and the whole group retired to the Saugerties near Woodstock, where they took their first break from the road in years. They hung out, walked in the woods, and met daily in the basement to play the old music they loved and recreate the sound and mindset of America.

©Elliot Landy

Robbie Robertson: “My guitar playing was like a premature ejaculation in the beginning. I was in my early twenties with Bob Dylan. Same thing, a hundred guitar solos a night. I’d done this to death…I wanted to discover the sound of the band. ..I’m not gonna play a guitar solo on the whole record. I’m only going to play riffs, Curtis Mayfield kind of riffs. I wanted the drums to have their own character. I wanted the piano not to sound like a big Yamaha grand. I wanted it to sound like an upright piano. I wanted these pictures in your mind. I wanted this flavor. I didn’t want screaming vocals. I wanted sensitive vocals where you can hear the breathing and the voices coming in. This whole thing of discovering the voices…This is emotional and this is story telling. You can see this mythology. This is the record that I wanted to make. “

©Elliot Landy

Drummer Levon Helm, from his autobiography “This Wheel’s on Fire”: “’Tears of Rage’” opened the album with a slow song, which was just another way of our rebelling against the rebellion. We were deliberately going against the grain. Few artists had ever opened an album with a slow song, so we had to. At the zenith of the psychedelic music era, with its flaming guitars and endless solos and elongated jams, we weren’t about to make that kind of album. Bob Dylan helped Richard with this number about a parent’s heartbreak, and Richard sang one of the best performances of his life. It had those trademark horns and organ and the moaning tom-tom style of drumming that I’ve been credited with by some observers, but I know that Ringo Starr was doing something like it at the same time.  [JM: Cf the deadened tom-tom sound Ringo invented on ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’.] You make the drum notes bend down in pitch. You hit it, it sounds, and then it hums as the note dies out. If the ensemble is right, you can hear the sustain like a bell, and it’s very emotional. It can keep a slow song suspended in an interesting way. (John Simon heard this and started calling me a bayou folk drummer, but not to my face.)”

What is most remarkable to me today about “Music from Big Pink” in general and ‘Tears of Rage’ specifically is the way they assemble the music through mutually interdependent lines. Just like jazz at its best. Listen to the original version of ‘Tears of Rage’ from “The Basement Tapes.” Even wooden-fingered Jeff can play that guitar part, strum-two-three-four, strum-two three-four. Now listen to the opening of The Band’s ‘Tears of Rage’, the very opening of this miraculous album. What’s going on? Where is the rhythmic center? We don’t hit an identifiable marker until about the eighth bar—it’s just intertwining and floating, but all in tandem, a pas de cinq ballet of sounds. So much of what the Band invents can be found right here in this instrumental introduction—the ‘Curtis Mayfield’ guitar riff, the lead voice, but so much an integral part of the whole; the almost inaudible but crucial floating sustained organ; the interplay of the bass and the drum and the rhythm piano, together providing an implicit rhythm created as much by the gaps as by the beats, as intimate as lovers, as self-effacing as monks, as synchronized as guys who have been travelling together for six years.

“Music from Big Pink” is too weighty a work to try to deal with it in its entirety. I’m struggling to give just the first cut a fair shake. I guess I’ll just have to (get to!) revisit some of the other wondrous songs another time. Last week I tried to give an honest reading of the song as its author performed it. But that, for all the beauty and wisdom of the song, is clearly a sketch of a rendition, still in its adolescence. Here, in The Band’s treatment, it finds its full, organic expression.  Manual’s voice together with Garth’s organ and the tambourine and – oh, there’s just no end to the richness of this tapestry. It can’t be plumbed, it can’t be dissected or measured. Just sit back and let it rend your heart.


For further edification:

The wonderful Norwegian Web site chronicling all things Band.

Al Kooper’s 1968 review in Rolling Stone magazine of the Album of the Year, “Music from Big Pink”

Alternate version of ‘Tears of Rage’ from the “Big Pink” sessions

An unsuccessful ‘Tears of Rage’ by Manuel and Danko from the LP “Whispering Pines” (1985)

A very successful ‘I Shall Be Released’ by Manuel and Danko from the LP “Whispering Pines” (1985)

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

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


A bizarre personal story of mine regarding the house, Big Pink

087: Bob Dylan, ‘Black Diamond Bay’


016: Bob Dylan, ‘Percy’s Song’

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

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211: Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention, ‘Help, I’m a Rock’ (“Freak Out!”)

Posted by jeff on May 11, 2019 in Rock

frank_zappa_and_the_mothers_of_invention_album_art-27984The Mothers of Invention, ‘Help I’m a Rock’ (Pt 1)
The Mothers of Invention, ‘Help I’m a Rock’ (Pt 2)

Dear Mr Meshel, 

I read your Song of The Week somewhat regularly, and I do enjoy it on occasion, especially when you talk about The Good Old Days. I heard a rumor that you met Frank Zappa back then. Is it true??? I’d sure love to hear about that. He’s the greatest musician of our times, I think, even more than Taylor Swift.
Yours truley,
Suzie Shamenet, Philadelphia

Well, Suzie, it’s true. I did buy The Mothers of Invention’s debut album “Freak Out” the week it was released (June 27, 1966), way before anyone else in Ohio had heard of them, and was an early proponent. And it’s true that I saw them in concert at Taft Auditorium in Cincinnati in April, 1968. And it’s true that I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr Zappa before the show.

Freak_Out!_back_coverThe reason I’ve refrained from sharing those experiences and thoughts is that the cult of his devotees has grown so in breadth and depth that I feel I’ve been left far behind by the armies of sophisticated young ‘uns for whom Zappa is a cultural icon and musical point of reference. Swing your Fender Stratocaster today and you’ll hit half a dozen fuzzy-cheeked wunderkinder who get him much better than I do. But since you asked…

My perception today is that Things (i.e., music and the cultural revolution it expressed) happened from The Beatles appearance on Ed Sullivan in February, 1964 to Altamont (August 1969) or the release of “Let It Be” (May 1970), take your pick. Everything before was preparation. Everything after was aftermath.

I graduated high school in Cincinnati in June, 1966, smack in the middle of The Golden Age, smack in the middle of Middle America. It was still a singles market in those days. FM radio was still the provenance of classical music. The Top 40 from the week of June 27 still looks pretty good in retrospect:

  1. The Beatles
Paperback Writer
  1. Frank Sinatra
Strangers In The Night
  1. The Rolling Stones
Paint It, Black
  1. The Lovin’ Spoonful
Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?
  1. Simon & Garfunkel
I Am A Rock
  1. The Cyrkle
Red Rubber Ball
  1. Robert Parker
  1. The Capitols
Cool Jerk
  1. Dusty Springfield
You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me


Frank-Zappa-CreativityBut I was already looking beyond singles into the 12-track LPs. I’d simply plant my feet in front of the racks of the biggest record shop and rifle the stacks for hours, plucking out everything that looked faintly promising, my only source of information being the flimsy web of data I could glean from the record covers themselves. The albums released that month included:

Elvis Presley Paradise, Hawaiian Style
The Temptations Gettin’ Ready
The Beatles Yesterday and Today
The Mothers of Invention Freak Out!
The Animals Animalisms
Jack Jones The Impossible Dream
The Incredible String Band The Incredible String Band



Suzie, you have no idea how off the charts “Freak Out!” was. The word ‘freak’ was strictly a pejorative in those days (that means ‘a bad word’). The hippie scene was nascent, hardly mentioned in the white boxer-short media. My grandfather saw me, the harbinger of fashion, in cut-off jeans, and asked why I was wearing torn clothing. “It’s the fashion,” I replied. “Oh, the fashion,” he nodded, lighting his pipe, comprehending yet bewildered.

In those days good was good, bad was bad. Good kids wanted to be good. They certainly didn’t want to be freaks. Me? “Freak Out!” entranced me. My parents, who really were not members of the Brain Police might have confiscated the album, had I not hidden it in a plain brown rapper. It was that outrageous. Thirty years later it was given a Grammy Hall of Fame Award and voted among the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”.

The Mothers of Invention, ‘You Didn’t Try to Call Me’

zappaSo there was Frank Zappa (1940-1993) and his band rubbing my face in a new reality – playing off doo-wop and 1950s teen clichés, but with a whole lot of nastyisms: “Wowie zowie, your love’s a treat/Wowie zowie, you can’t be beat/Wowie zowie, baby, you’re so neat/I don’t even care if you shave your legs.” “You’re probably wondering why I’m here/And so am I.”

For a 1966 17-year old, that was really edgy. I admit, it seems just a bit adolescent fifty years on. But what for me was the pièce de résistance of the album was the pentultimate cut, ‘Help, I’m a Rock’. On the original release it was a single 8:37 cut: Help, I’m a Rock (Suite in Three Movements)
I. Okay to Tap Dance
II. In Memoriam, Edgard Varèse
III. It Can’t Happen Here”
Later releases broke the last section into a separate cut.

It’s hard for me to sell a piece like ‘Help, I’m a Rock’ (purportedly dedicated to Elvis). It predates John’s ‘Revolution #9’ by over two years and surpasses it by 20 leagues. John’s is a self-indulgent, meaningless waste of wax. Frank’s is a bold, groundbreaking composition of seditious non-sense.

tumblr_m4agecXzCU1r8q2hao1_500Here’s ‘Ionisation’ by Edgar Varèse (1883-1965), Zappa’s musical guiding light. He believed in “organized sound”, “sound as living matter”, and “musical space as open rather than bounded”, “sound-masses” likening their organization to crystallization. “To stubbornly conditioned ears, anything new in music has always been called noise”, and he posed the question, “what is music but organized noises?”

Here’s Frank’s answer, and to me – now almost as much as then – it’s thoroughly convincing. I don’t know the conditions under which ‘Help, I’m a Rock’ was conceived, recorded and edited, but the result is (for my ears) a coherent artistic statement. Admittedly, the piece is exhorting the listener to participate in a revolution that’s long been fought and won. The world is full of freaks. Anything goes. I filled out a form for Amazon.com which began by requesting my Name, Address and Sex. The dropdown for the latter offered the choices of “M/F/Other”. Zappa 1, Barry Goldwater 0.


Mr & Mrs Zappa, son Frank

Can I convince you that ‘Help, I’m a Rock’ makes ‘sense’? For sure not. It makes non-sense, but it does so in a manner that convinces me. And a lot of other people spanning a whole bunch of generations, geographies and cultures. If Zappa had come to my door in 1966, the neighbors would have called the cops. Today he, the term ‘freak out’ that he coined and the aesthetic it engendered snuggle up on the living room couch watching network TV.

But Suzie, I promised you a story, didn’t I? Well I went to Taft Auditorium in April 1968, with the Mothers’ first three albums in my head. I walked into the interview with no little trepidation, fully expecting Frank Zappa to bite my neck, suck out all my blood, and turn me into a real (California) freak (I was already an Ohio freak, but that’s something wholly other).

He stood up when I walked in, walked towards me smiling, extended his hand, shook mine firmly, saying with disarming warmth, “Hi, I’m Frank Zappa, what’s your name?” Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of the interview I wrote up. The only specific I remember is his maintaining that high schools are derelict in not teaching students the basic skills of coping with life, such as fixing refrigerators (his example).

I remember more about the show. They played ‘Louie, Louie’, with Zappa doing a 5-minute guitar solo on a single note. He asked for a volunteer from the audience to sing a chorus. A young guy with a butch haircut and US Marine written all over him jumped up and grabbed the mike. While he was mumbling it out (if you don’t know the history of trying to decipher the lyrics to ‘Louie, Louie’, you’re missing the Rosetta Stone story of the 1960’s), Zappa tossed him a doll, which the lad proceeded to joyfully dismember. This was a month after My Lai, well over a year before the story broke. What was the audience thinking as we watched? God only knows.

What I do remember clearly was the Mothers’ show-stopping rendition of The Supreme’s ‘Baby Love’. I’ve never been the same since. But I guess maybe you had to be there.

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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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