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168: Neal Hefti, ‘Girl Talk’

Posted by jeff on Mar 15, 2013 in Jazz, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Girl Talk – Neal Hefti
Girl Talk – Tony Bennett
Girl Talk – Holly Cole 

Girl Talk, circa 1864

I’m rankled.

There’s a scene in “Lincoln” in which a black Union private quotes the Gettysburg Address by heart in a mellifluous baritone. Apparently, in Spielberg’s imagination, this gentleman was a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and learned about the Address via the internet three weeks after it was delivered.

I found “Django Unchained” almost as offensive (at least Tarantino’s games with history aren’t shrouded in counterfeit verisimilitude). “Oh, I think things should have been different, let’s change them.” Go to your room, Steven.

Let me say up front, I am against slavery. I hereby declare that I have never owned a slave nor have I ever knowingly associated with a slave owner. But I think raping yesterday’s events to validate today’s biases is intellectually hypocritical and aesthetically offensive.

Girl Talk

Hang on, folks: Things Change!
First A happens, and then after that B.
B is to some degree a result of A.
A is in no way a result of B.
Was that too fast for you, Quentin?

Yet I come not to bash Civil War recreationists, but to praise music.

Same thing with misogyny. I was raised by a feminist. I firmly believe that women are a superior breed to men, Homo sapiens rev. 2.0 (well, today it might be rev. 2.1). I believe that women are smarter than men in almost every conceivable way, more caring, more sensitive, more capable, more resourceful, more realistic. I have never beaten my wife (other than at Scrabble), my children, or my dog. For many years, I haven’t even beaten a rug.

Girl Talk

But yet, I am a member of the male persuasion, and as such adhere to many of the traditional prejudices and biases of my ilk. Such as:

  • Women enjoy shopping more than men (I recently learned the medical term for its salubrious curative affects: “Retail Therapy”)
  • Women can be crueler to women than men can be to men or women or beasts of burden (see Genesis 21)
  • Women ‘communicate’ more than men (i.e., talk when you’re trying to read the newspaper). See my man James Thurber, “Is Sex Necessary?”

Get to the music, Jeff.

Jean Harlow. Girl (don’t need to) Talk.

In 1965, Joe Levine produced the cinematic misterpiece “Harlow” for Paramount Pictures, a biopic of the prototypical ‘Blonde Bombshell”, the 1930s sex symbol Jean Harlow, starring Carroll Baker. ([Crying after a bad day at the studio:] “Oh, Mom, all they want is my body!”) For the theme song, he hired one of the best composer/arrangers around, Neal Hefti (1922-2008).

Hefti had in his CV decades of fine work in jazz, including Woody Herman’s First Herd, the first WWII swing band to begin to move to ‘The New Thing’ – bebop jazz (‘Wildroot’ and ‘The Good Earth’). Hefti married Herman’s singer Frances Wayne and then in 1950 began a 12-year collaboration with Count Basie.

One of the most memorable results is the album “Atomic Basie”, with joyous cuts such as ‘Flight of the Foo Birds’, ‘The Kid from Red Bank’ and ‘Whirlybird’. Miles Davis: “If it weren’t for Neal Hefti, the Basie band wouldn’t sound as good as it does. But Neal’s band can’t play those same arrangements nearly as well.”

Girl Talk

Tangent: Twenty-five years later these cuts also inspired The Real Group, a Swedish vocal quintet, which in 1987 began recording a cappella versions of Basie/Hefti collaborations and thereby created the foundation of Contemporary AC, a genre I love dearly. Here’s The Real Group in a wonderful medley from 2004, and here’s the Danish group Touché with another from 2011. I’ve written about this music in the past, and plan to continue in the near future.

Julie London. Girl, just don’t Talk.

In the 1960s, Hefti moved to California to compose and arrange for films, TV and stars (including “Sinatra and Swingin’ Brass”), winning lots of Grammies along the way. Some of his biggest hits included the themes for ‘Batman’, ‘The Odd Couple’, and our sometimes maligned Song of The Week, ‘Girl Talk’, the theme from the movie “Harlow”. In the movie, the theme was instrumental. Call Bobby Troup.

You might know Bobby for his compositions ‘Route 66’ (originally a hit for Nat ‘King’ Cole, but covered by everyone from The Rolling Stones to The Cramps) or ‘The Meaning of the Blues’ from the great Miles Davis/Gil Evans album “Miles Ahead”. But I remember him most for his second wife, the pin-up jazz singer Julie London. Troup wrote lyrics for ‘Girl Talk’, and made the first recording of the vocal version in 1965 in this video directed by no less than Robert Altman! Bobby’s not much of a singer (or actor), and the video is indeed pretty cheesy and objectionable. Hey, blame Altman.

Girl Talk about shopping

Bobby then gave it to Julie with lyrics altered to suit her gender, but it’s really a guy’s song. It’s a ‘can’t live with ‘em can’t live without ‘em’ anthem. That doesn’t fly today, I know, at least not in public. I talked all about this concept in SoTW 150 in its Biblical context and what my granddaddy had to say to me about it. I know what Guys Talk about when their spouses (spice?) ain’t listening.

If you want a definitive version of ‘Girl Talk’, I guess it would be Tony Bennett’s from 1966, backed by Neil Hefti’s band. (Here’s the same arrangement nicely done live.) ‘Girl Talk’ has been recorded a million times since then, mostly by female jazz singers. Here are recent versions by Kate McGarry and by Cheryl Bentyne, both fine versions by fine singers. My favorite is this great treatment by Holly Cole. During the course of this video, she says the song is sexist and that she performs it as a parody.

James Thurber. Girl Talk, man listen.

‘Girl Talk’ is sexist? Demeaning? Misogynist? You turn on a gangsta rap radio station today, you hear ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ by Prodigy, ‘Bitches Ain’t Shit’ by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, and ‘99 Problems (but a bitch ain’t one)’ by Jay-Z. I guess ‘Run For Your Life’ by The Beatles is too tame for the playlist at WHIP.

I think those songs aren’t just offensive. I think they have no redeeming social value.

But when Holly Cole calls ‘Girl Talk’ sexist, I think she’s being disingenuous. I think she’s very feminine, and she’s playing up her femininity as female jazz singers so often do. As Julie London did, as Jean Harlow did, as women always have and always will. Yeah, social standards have changed and I do firmly believe that women should get the same pay as men for the same job. But plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, folks. And I personally wouldn’t have it any other way.

They like to chat about the dresses they will wear tonight
They chew the fat about their tresses and the neighbours’ fight
Inconsequential things that men don’t really care to know
Become essential things that women find so a propos

But that’s a dame, they’re all the same, it’s just a game,
They call it Girl Talk.
They all meow about the ups and downs of all their friends,
The who, the how, the why, they dish the dirt, it never ends.
The weaker sex, the speaker sex, we mortal males behold
But though we joke, we wouldn’t trade you for a ton of gold.

So baby stay and gab away but hear me say
That after girl talk – talk to me.

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045: Julie London, ‘Bye Bye, Blackbird’
020: Esperanza Spalding, ‘I Know You Know’

 
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167: James Blake, ‘Lindisfarne’

Posted by jeff on Mar 8, 2013 in Other, Song Of the week

James Blake – Lindisfarne II

James Blake

I saw “Django Unchained” this week. I’m not proud of it, but I’ll cop to the misdemeanor with head held high. I find his aesthetic offensive. Deep down he’s a snide adolescent mocking any and every thing constructed by man. How cool. I outgrew that at 17.  Art is making things. You go out on a limb, you construct, you make an honest creative gesture. You believe in something that wasn’t there before. Tarantino mocks. Go to your room, Quentin.

James Blake

I don’t understand these young whippersnappers. I don’t even understand some of the older ones. There’s so much new music going on that a person can’t keep up. I remember the good old days when there were only 40 songs you needed to know, two or three new ones a week. That’s a doable task. I just got the weekly AMG New Release Newsletter with 59 new albums (including brand-new releases by Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Boz Scaggs – wait, isn’t Boz still alive?). There’s one other artist I know (Madeleine Peyroux), and one I wish I did (They Might Be Giants). But there are more than 50 I’ve never heard of, including Chelsea Light Moving, Son Volt, Rhye, and How to Destroy Angels. And those are headliners! Hell, there are a whole passle of genres I’ve never heard of. What is Alternative Dance? Is it sitting wallflowered on a chair in the corner drinking punch? What is Experimental Techno? Is that as opposed to Traditional Techno? Neo-Psychedelia. I’m so old I’ve lived to see a neo-??

But as R. Tarfon and The Sages (that’s a Trad-Ethical Rap band) said, ‘You don’t gotta finish the job, bro’, but you do gotta keep on keepin’ on.’

Wise words, Tarf. But did you waste three hours on “Django Unchained”?

Self-portrait by paternal Uncle William

I don’t know how, but a few weeks ago I tripped over a young London singer-songwriter named James Blake (b. 1988; that makes him, what, eleven?) I don’t know how it happened. I might have been looking for some ballads by his wacko uncle William. But it was a copacetic if serendipitous fluke of fortuitousness.

Because he’s been on my turntable ever since. Haunting ain’t the word. He possesses you.

He began releasing electronic music recorded and produced in his bedroom during his last year of university, 2009. Since then, he’s put out one eponymous album and five EPs (“The Bells Sketch”, “CMYK”, “Klavierwerke”, “Enough Thunder” and “Love What Happened Here”).  He also does a lot of remixes under the name Harmonimix. I have no idea what that means.

James’ maternal Uncle Bela

But that album! The only thing vaguely similar I’ve ever heard is Antony Hegarty of Antony & the Johnsons – minimalist, restrained, intense, unsettling. Antony’s flagrant ‘questionable sexuality’ is more of a distraction than an attraction for me. He’s so Other that you can put him in a drawer and close it. Not so James. He is in fact the boy from the haunted house next door –expressionless, innocent, as bland in appearance as his name, as harmless as Bela Lugosi’s nephew visiting from Nebraska.

But watch out, boys and girls. We’re talking about a whole different can of earworms.

In interviews, he’s serious and modest. In live recordings, you can hear the kiddies in the audience shouting and screaming and singing along with his Martian music. I was at a Mothers of Invention concert in 1967, and it was nowhere near that strange.

Sweet baby-faced James at the keyboard

He’s very proud of the fact that he creates the music on his computer, from start to finish, in his bedroom. The music features a toolbox of trademark elements: gentle piano, talking guitar, baffling harmonies, hypnotic percussion, a mix of distorted human and luminous alien sounds, caesurae (sudden breaks in the music), less-is-more vocals, mystifying lyrics.

You know, that doesn’t sound very appealing on paper. So why have I been listening to it non-stop for three weeks? Don’t listen to me, listen to James.

Try ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ (I don’t know about my dreams/All that I know is I’m fallin’)

Lindisfarne

Try ‘I Never Learnt to Share’ (My brother and my sister don’t speak to me/But I don’t blame them)

Try ‘Limit to Your Love’ (There’s a limit to your love/Like a waterfall in slow motion/Like a map with no ocean/There’s a limit to your love). The song is a cover. The original is by a Canadian singer-songwriter lass, Feist. That’s her real surname, but it means ‘a nervous belligerent little mongrel dog’.

And if James hasn’t confounded you enough yet, here’s a shocker: another cover of a female Canadian singer-songwriter, one Joni Mitchell, ‘A Case of You’, which he does very commendably. The kid can’t be all bad. And he says he cut his chops growing up on ‘Dock of a Bay’.

Kestrels in flagrante delicto

While you’re listening, let me tell you a little story about the Talking Guitar that James employs. It was more or less invented by Pete Drake, the Nashville pedal steel guitarist (‘Lay, Lady, Lay’, ‘Stand By Your Man’, and George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass”, where Peter Framptom learned the technique from him). Pete had a hit with it in the 1964 gem ‘Forever’. Now, that was music.

But the coup de grace for my money is the second of two versions of ‘Lindisfarne’ on the album. Here’s the song. I recommend that you not watch the video. It’s not suitable for the workplace. It’s not suitable for anywhere.

Beacon don't fly too high

Beacon don’t fly too high

I’ve been looking at the lyrics of ‘Lindisfarne’ a lot, and have utterly failed to make any sense of them. Well, we come to praise James, not to demystify him. So I’ll just give you some bits of information, and please let me know what you make of it all:

  • Lindisfarne is a wee tidal island (usually accessible at low-tide by traversing sand and mud flats) near the border between England and Scotland, with a population of 162. In the 7th century it was a center for Christian evangelists, but then the Vikings invaded in 793, and things haven’t been the same since.
  • There are kestrels on Lindisfarne.
  • Saver’s Pass is a type of bus ticket.
  • It’s kids like this James Blake that deny me the luxury of ignoring music by people younger than Frank Sinatra. Thank you, James, and best of luck to you.

 

Kestrels breed,
Looking further than I can see
Without tact to read,
She’d take a shine to me.
Beacon don’t fly too high,
Beacon don’t fly too high.

For all your time,
Playful crime in rain
Worth it being cold,
Roofing for the lanes.
A lesson lost again,
A lesson lost again.

Cute but I’ll take the bus,
With fees and favours gone
Cracks in Saver’s Pass,
And a white that sometimes shone
Wanton borrowed gun,
Wanton borrowed gun.

Kestrels breed,
Looking further than I can see
Without tact to read,
She’d take a shine to me.
Beacon don’t fly too high,
Beacon don’t fly too high.

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030: The Bulgarian State Radio and Television Women’s Choir (Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares) – ‘Pilentze Pee’

 

 
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165: Paul Simon, ‘Jonah’

Posted by jeff on Feb 22, 2013 in Rock, Song Of the week

Paul Simon – Jonah

Paul Simon as Jonah Levin in ‘One-Trick Pony’

You think you can just walk in and get the job? There’s a whole pile of prerequisite qualifications you need to schlep with you just to get the interview: a father who fought in WWII, professionally diagnosed pronounced arrested development, an acute affection for anal archivism, no social life, and first and foremost a highly evolved obsession for completism. And they snicker??

I have great admiration for Paul Simon. I’ve watched his musical accomplishments go from very good (half of Simon and Garfunkel’s oeuvre) to very very good (the other half) to Yes!! (the first solo album) to Yes!! (his second and third solo albums–note the lesser squeal) to Magnum Opus (“Hearts and Bones”)  to Nope (“Graceland”) to Also Recorded (the last five, since 1990).

Woody Allen, Paul Simon, Diane Keaton

As all of you fellow compulsives have of course noted, I’ve skipped not only over the recycled live performances, but also that most puzzling of his albums, “One Trick Pony” (1980), five years after “Still Crazy”, three years before “Hearts and Bones”. Ostensibly, he’s at the height of his creative powers. But in 1975 he divorced his wife of 16 years, Peggy, the mother of his then three year-old son Harper. He also moved from Columbia Records to Warner Brothers, taking his catalog with him. In 1977, he played The Record Producer Who Gets The Girl in the movie “Annie Hall” written and directed by a brilliant, diminutive über New Yorker of Hebraic ancestry.

Bitten by the bit part, in 1980 he wrote and starred in his own movie, “One-Trick Pony”, this time portraying Jonah Levin, a short New York singer-songwriter who had a major hit with a protest song ten years before and is currently struggling with a floundering career. He’s separated from his wife and three year-old son. Someone will probably get a doctorate some day in English Literature laboriously demonstrating that there’s some autobiography in the movie.

Paul Simon as Jonah Levin in ‘One-Trick Pony’

Paul Simon acts with the passion and nuance and dexterity of a cigar-store Indian. He acts about as well as Woody Allen plays clarinet, I’m guessing. I’ve never subjected myself to hearing Mr Konigsberg play, and I regret having watched the movie this week. But it was untenable that a Paul Simon devotee such as I, an ostensibly serious listener, would not know the film. So I did it. A man’s got to do what a boy’s got to do. I just hope I’m not compelled to watch it again, because I really admire the music from the movie, and the film only diminishes it.

The album “One-Trick Pony” isn’t defined as a soundtrack. It doesn’t include un-noteworthy and thankfully undocumented guest appearances by The Lovin’ Spoonful, Sam and Dave and Tiny Tim at a retro record convention where Jonah reluctantly performs his Top 40 Hit gentle anti-Vietnam diatribe, ‘Soft Parachutes’ (“Haven’t they heard the war was over a long time ago?”). ‘Soft Parachutes’ was included as a bonus track on the remastered re-release of the album. I’m including it here to dissuade you (and myself) from sitting through the movie to hear it.

There’s a radio coming from the room next door/
My mother laughed the way some ladies do.

I don’t really understand what the music critics wanted from “One-Trick Pony”. For my money, it’s as full of heart-rending sincerity and masterful musicality as all but the very finest of his work. Best known from the album are the upbeat band numbers, especially the hit ‘Late in the Evening’, a charming autobiographical tale of a boy from the Brooklyn ‘hood, with an indelible Latin-infused groove. And ‘There’s a radio coming from the room next door/My mother laughed the way some ladies do’—who else can capture a whole world of feminine sexuality in a glimpse of a phrase?

And the title track ‘One-Trick Pony’? Okay, maybe it’s not ‘Kodachrome’ or even ‘Baby Driver’. But there’s a lot to mull over there. He’s saying that Jonah/Paul is a songwright of limited range, but admirably dedicated to his craft, which he practices with a purity of purpose.  Paul can afford the irony; he is in fact a proven master of a great range of styles.

Paul Simon as Jonah Levin, with Joan Hackett as Mrs Robinson in ‘One-Trick Pony’

But if he has a specialty, it’s the wistful, complex acoustic ballads honestly examining the experiential nooks and emotional crannies of his heart and bones. The album “One-Trick Pony” is chock-full of them.

I interviewed Paul and Art in 1967, when the album “Sounds of Silence” was riding high on the charts, as the cliché goes. Paul was engaging, cheerful and outgoing. He was not yet a major star. In later years, at least publicly, he adopted an ultra-cool persona, void of smiles or openness or warmth. The absence of facial expression recalls Montgomery Clift, the disaffected veneer James Dean. This is in contrast to his music, which was rivaled only by few other artists for its emotional forthrightness. A mask, perhaps, protective padding.

Paul Simon as Jonah Levin in ‘One-Trick Pony’

I begrudge Paul no masks. In his songs, he is as open and vulnerable and honest as a boy can be. How often have I felt a very specific emotion, usually one involving both love and pain, the corner of a facet of a shade of a feeling – and there’s this phrase of his that nails it so precisely?

  • That’s Why God Made the Movies’ (“Say you’ll nourish me with your tenderness/The way the ladies sometimes do”)
  • Oh, Marion’ (“Oh, Marion,I think I’m in trouble here/I should have believed you when I heard you saying /The only time that love is an easy game/Is when two other people are playing”)
  • Long, Long Day’ (“I sure could use a friend/Don’t know what else to say/I hate to abuse an old cliché/But it’s been a long, long day”)
  • Paul Simon as Jonah Levin in ‘One-Trick Pony’

    Even the lesser songs in these musical veins and emotional arteries are respectable: ‘Nobody’, ‘God Bless the Absentee’, ‘How The Heart Approaches What it Yearns’.

But the gem for me has always been the eponymous ‘Jonah’, the protagonist of the movie, the alter-ego of Paul Simon, whose own career has been immeasurably more successful than Jonah’s, but his confidence seemingly just as frail, his pain just as real.

Paul Simon as Jonah Levin in ‘One-Trick Pony’

The song is a wonder of craft and passion. Who would have thought that feelings, the notoriously amorphous and slippery quick of our inner lives, could be so precisely dissected, reconstructed, and formulated in a mere song? Well, Jonah Levin does it. That other Jonah, he was cast overboard for his doubts, swallowed by a whale, and emerged intact. Paul Simon has gone through his own ordeal and emerged with a song for us, one by which I have often been thankful to be swallowed.

Half an hour you change your strings and tune up
Sizing the room up, checking the bar.
Local girls, unspoken conversations,
Misinformation plays guitar.

They say Jonah was swallowed by a whale
But I say there’s no truth to that tale.
I know Jonah was swallowed by a song.

No one gives their dreams away too lightly–
They hold them tightly, warm against cold.
One more year of traveling ’round this circuit,
Then you can work it into gold.

They say Jonah was swallowed by a whale
But I say there’s no truth to that tale.
I know Jonah was swallowed by a song.

Here’s to all the boys who came along
Carrying soft guitars with cardboard cases all night long.
Do you wonder where those boys have gone? 

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078: Paul Simon, ‘The Late, Great Johnny Ace’

 

 
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164: Bob Dylan, ‘Tangled Up in Blue’

Posted by jeff on Feb 15, 2013 in Rock, Song Of the week

‘Tangled Up in Blue’ — NY Sessions, Take 1
‘Tangled Up in Blue’ — NY Sessions, Take 2
‘Tangled Up in Blue’ — Minnesota, Official Release

Painting by Bob Dylan. Blue man.

Blue man. Painting by Bob Dylan.

Bob Dylan, 1974, the man of a thousand faces, as multifaceted and puzzling as life itself.

After nine monolithic albums in eight years (1963-70) that not only described but actually prescribed the lives of an entire generation, then a creative drought of four years. After years of frenetic touring, then a seven year hiatus induced by a motorcycle crash. What was he doing in those interim years?

Well, he married in 1965 and had four children. In ‘Sign on the Window’ from “New Morning”, one of the greatest songs on the last in his string of great albums, he sings “Build me a cabin in Utah/Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout/Have a bunch of kids who call me “Pa”/That must be what it’s all about.”

Bob Dylan with brood

But then came 1973-1974. A new album for a new record company, “Planet Waves” for David Gefen’s Asylum, commercially mediocre, artistically uneven. The “After the Flood” tour with The Band, more shouted than sung.

In the midst of all this activity, Dylan began to study painting with 73 year-old Russian-born Norman Raeben, the son of Sholem Aleichem. He stressed perceptual honesty rather than conceptualization. “Bob”, Norman said to Dylan, “look at that round coffee table. Now, show me how you would paint it.” He thought the scruffy Dylan was destitute, and told him that if he’d clean up the studio after class he could crash there. Raeben berated his students in class, with a kill-or-cure indifference to their feelings.

Mortal Dylan

“He put my mind and my hand and my eye together in a way that allowed me to do consciously what I unconsciously felt,” said Dylan. This metamorphosed into a songwriting technique employing a fragmented narrative of time, place and person. Events, personae, and sequences Bob and shift. It is left to the listener to struggle to reconstruct some coherence, some linear narrative. He never quite succeeds, because the images are built for slipping and sliding, defying mere denotations. But the energy generated in the leap between the given and the sought for creates a kinetic aesthetic experience, ever-changing, transcending time and place, forever young.

“I had met magicians, but this guy is more powerful than any magician I’ve ever met. He looked into you and told you what you were. And he didn’t play games about it.”

Bob Dylan Blood on the Tracks Painting

Painting by Bob Dylan. Bloody tracks.

The experience with Raeben seems to have brought trouble to Dylan’s domestic paradise. “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.”  (‘Idiot Wind’: ‘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.’)

The technique and the trauma engendered an artistic achievement of monumental scale in the resulting 1974 album, “Blood on the Tracks.” It is a collection of ten songs, mostly written in D, employing lots of major seventh chords (giving the overall tone of sweet, pained wistfulness) and performed on an acoustic guitar in open tuning with minimal accompaniment – a bass, sometimes a steel guitar, sometimes a touch of organ (very reminiscent of the format he employed on the softer acoustic songs on Bringing It All Back Home). He first recorded the songs in New York City in September, 1974, with a shifting array of studio musicians in a series of sessions that took Dylan’s notoriously casual studio work to new levels of shoddiness. He would just start playing and expect the musicians to follow. Adding verses, extending breaks. At times, they pleaded with him to do another take. Then three months later, he redid the songs in Minnesota with a bunch of his brother’s buddies.

'Motel Pool', painting by Bob Dylan

‘Motel Pool’, painting by Bob Dylan

The officially released version of the album is a mix, five recordings from New York (‘Simple Twist of Fate’, ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’, ‘Meet Me in the Morning’, ‘Shelter from the Storm’ and ‘Buckets of Rain’), five from Minnesota (‘Tangled Up in Blue’, ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’, ‘Idiot Wind’, ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’, ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’). The NY takes are softer, gentler, more sincerely loving, more nakedly pained. The Minnesota takes have a harder surface, faster tempi, more aesthetically distanced. Uniformly, the New York takes are superior. Some of the Minnesota takes are respectable, none improve on the originals.

That would be impossible. They’re pretty perfect. “Blood on the Tracks” is widely considered a peak achievement for Dylan, for the music of our times. It was ranked number 16 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Bill Wyman (of The Rolling Stones) considered it “…his only flawless album… It is his kindest album and most dismayed, and seems in hindsight to have achieved a sublime balance between the logorrhea-plagued excesses of his mid-1960s output and the self-consciously simple compositions of his post-accident years.” Logorrhea? Bill Wyman??

'Opium', painting by Bob Dylan

‘Opium’, painting by Bob Dylan

Dylan famously said, in a radio interview with Mary Travers, “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?” Well, ‘enjoy’ certainly doesn’t begin to encompass the rich experience which can be derived from “Blood on the Tracks”. If you’re going to revisit it or learn it, I urge you to seek out the bootleg New York sessions.

For our Song of The Week, we have the pleasure of saying a few words about the iconic, seductive, elusive, indelible song that opens the album, ‘Tangled Up in Blue’. All Dylan’s passion – both the love and the pain, strongly weighted towards the latter – and the wit and the wisdom and the humor are there. We often forget what a master craftsman of lyrics Dylan is. He’s not just deep or profound. He has a command of the technique of writing lyrics that is often obscured by his many other talents.

Tangled Up in Blue

Dylan riffed his writing abilities on ‘Tangled Up in Blue’. From the start, he invented new lyrics at every turn. Here’s Take 1 from New York. Here’s Take 2. In both, you can hear the clicking of his jacket buttons against the guitar. And you can feel the pounding of his heart. Here’s the official release, the Minnesota version. At the bottom, you can see the lyrics of Minnesota (mostly first person) juxtaposed with those from New York (mostly third person).

Serious people have made a study of comparing variant versions of the song.  Here’s one. Here’s another. Here’s a third. There are many more. And what is so remarkable is that every switch, every shift, works. They’re all great, they’re all legitimate. Do you get that? He writes a magnificent song, and then recreates the lyrics every time he sings it!! Not even Charlie Parker did that.

Tangled Up in Blue, the single

Tangled Up in Blue, the single

The song seems to tell a story, even though the details can’t be pinned down. Dylan plays with pronouns, with personae. ‘He’ and ‘I’ and ‘she’ and ‘they’ are indecipherable, shifting, a dance of veils.

In the first verse, he’s remembering her: the song is a flashback. At the end, he’ll say that he’s going back to her. They wanted to get married, but her parents didn’t approve. He’s hitching East. Why? Who knows. Let your imagination work. The humor—I was wondering if she’d changed, if her hair was still red. Oh, Bobby.

Second verse. He extricates her, they run off, they split. ‘I heard her say over my shoulder’—he doesn’t even turn around. But he’s saying this all with unbounded love. Boy, is there a whole world right there.

Third verse. Lumberjack cook, the ax fell. Rhyming ‘employed’ and ‘Delacroix’. Jeez.

Painting by Bob Dylan

Painting by Bob Dylan

Fourth verse. She’s dancing topless in the spotlight. He’s gaping at the side of her face. Right. ‘Later on as the crowd thinned out, I was just about to do the same.’ It don’t get no better than that. ‘I muttered something underneath my breath.’ Ok, it just did. He ‘gets uneasy’ when this topless dancer hitting on him ‘bends down to tie his shoes’.  I have nothing to say, I’m just shaking my head in appreciation and enjoyment.

Fifth verse. Dante Alighieri, 1265-1321, author of The Divine Comedy. In subsequent versions, this changed to Jeremiah and Baudelaire and others. This stoned, topless, brazen red-head introduces our Horatio Alger to Dante.

Verse Six. Who knows who is in the scene—2 people? 3? But the fragments are indelible: ‘There was music in the cafés at night/And revolution in the air.’ That is the 1960s encapsulated in a single image. ‘Keep on keeping on’. That’s life.

Last verse. What is ‘tangled up in blue’? It’s a chaotic pastiche, a vortex of glimpses of situations that makes absolute emotional sense. It’s a perfect union of fifty states of mind. It’s a song.

We know exactly where we are in every bar, be it a measure of beats or booze. Until the next one, then we’re somewhere wholly other. We’re on a six-minute road trip, in flux, heading for another joint at every moment. But we always feel the same, we just see it from different points of view. And we all know why. Because we’re all so tangled up in blue.

1 Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’
I was layin’ in bed
Wond’rin’ if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red
Her folks they said our lives together
Sure was gonna be rough
They never did like Mama’s homemade dress
Papa’s bankbook wasn’t big enough
And I was standin’ on the side of the road
Rain fallin’ on my shoes
Heading out for the East Coast
Lord knows I’ve paid some dues gettin’ through
Tangled up in blue
Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’
He was lyin’ in bed
Wond’rin’ if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red
Her folks they said their lives together
Sure was gonna be rough
They never did like Mama’s homemade dress
Papa’s bankbook wasn’t big enough
He was standin’ on the side of the road
Rain fallin’ on his shoes
Heading out for the old East Coast
Lord knows he’s paid some dues gettin’ through
Tangled up in blue
2 She was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam, I guess
But I used a little too much force
We drove that car as far as we could
Abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best
She turned around to look at me
As I was walkin’ away
I heard her say over my shoulder
“We’ll meet again someday on the avenue”
Tangled up in blue
She was married when they first met
Soon to be divorced
He helped her out of a jam, I guess
But he used a little too much force
They drove that car as far as we could
Abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best
She turned around to look at him
As he was walkin’ away
She said “This can’t be the end,
We’ll meet again someday on the avenue”
Tangled up in blue
3  I had a job in the great north woods
Working as a cook for a spell
But I never did like it all that much
And one day the ax just fell
So I drifted down to New Orleans
Where I happened to be employed
Workin’ for a while on a fishin’ boat
Right outside of Delacroix
But all the while I was alone
The past was close behind
I seen a lot of women
But she never escaped my mind, and I just grew
Tangled up in blue
He had a job in the great north woods
Working as a cook for a spell
But he never did like it all that much
And one day the ax just fell
So he drifted down to LA
Where he reckoned to try his luck,
Workin’ for a while in an airplane plant
Loading cargo onto a truck
But all the while he was alone
The past was close behind
He seen a lot of women
But she never escaped his mind, and he just grew
Tangled up in blue
4 She was workin’ in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer
I just kept lookin’ at the side of her face
In the spotlight so clear
And later on as the crowd thinned out
I’s just about to do the same
She was standing there in back of my chair
Said to me, “Don’t I know your name?”
I muttered somethin’ underneath my breath
She studied the lines on my face
I must admit I felt a little uneasy
When she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe
Tangled up in blue
She was workin’ in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer
I just kept lookin’ at the side of her face
In the spotlight so clear
And later on as the crowd thinned out
I’s just about to do the same
She was standing there in back of my chair
Said to me, “What’s your name?”
I muttered somethin’ underneath my breath
She studied the lines on my face
I must admit I felt a little uneasy
When she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe
Tangled up in blue
5  She lit a burner on the stove
And offered me a pipe
“I thought you’d never say hello,” she said
“You look like the silent type”
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you
Tangled up in blue
She lit a burner on the stove
And offered me a pipe
“I thought you’d never say hello,” she said
“You look like the silent type”
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you
Tangled up in blue
6  I lived with them on Montague Street
In a basement down the stairs
There was music in the cafés at night
And revolution in the air
Then he started into dealing with slaves
And something inside of him died
She had to sell everything she owned
And froze up inside
And when finally the bottom fell out
I became withdrawn
The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew
Tangled up in blue
He was always in a hurry,
Too busy or too stoned.
And everything that she had planned
Just had to be postponed.
He thought they were successful
She thought they were blessed
With objects and materiel things,
But I never was impressed.
And when it all came crashing down
I became withdrawn
The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew
Tangled up in blue
7  So now I’m goin’ back again
I got to get to her somehow
All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenters’ wives
Don’t know how it all got started
I don’t know what they’re doin’ with their lives
But me, I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue
So now I’m goin’ back again
I got to get to her somehow
All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenters’ wives
Don’t know how it all got started
I don’t know what they’re doin’ with their lives
But me, I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue

Copyright © 1974 by Ram’s Horn Music; renewed 2002 by Ram’s Horn Music

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