Why is is that we cannot get enough of Bob Dylan? Why are we such voracious consumers of all that he produces – hell, even if we loathe the vehicle, even if, like me, you saw a CD of songs sold through Starbucks that has, we are told, influenced Dylan, you bought it anyway, maybe hating yourself the whole time for buying into anything that had anything to do with Starbucks and music, and in particular with Dylan - not because he’s some saint, but because part of you somehow figured he was above that fray. Mind you, if you’re in there in the first place, the question to ask yourself is why the hell he should be “above” something that clearly you are not. You are there: you are buying it while you sip your chai latte. Or maybe you did not. Maybe you’re above all that. I’m not. Dylan’s not.
Let’s face it, when it comes to Starbucks etc., if you’re like me, you deal with it and you hate it. It is convenient, and as such, a convenient vehicle and stopping and meeting place and we use it. Why shouldn’t Dylan?
For as much as we want to ascribe to him, Dylan never claimed to be more than a “song and dance man” although he has said he was a poet at various times he has also said that anyone who calls himself a poet is not a poet. As a so-called “poet” (among a writer of prose etc.), I completely understand this statement because language cannot and perhaps should not be so easily categorized and fit neatly into our social register.
Dylan is our entertainer, he tells us: “A song and dance man”. It’s okay for him to do Victoria’s Secret or Cadillac commercials because, shit, why shouldn’t he? It’s not like he has sold out, because he never bought in – at least, not lock-stock-and barrel. Do not misunderstand: I do not say here that Dylan has or had no firm conviction for clearly he had and still has – that much is abundantly clear in his action(s) and lyric. But to buy into any philosophy fully – to not question at all – well, perhaps this is not so wise – and Dylan has made it quite clear that he is an independent thinker, not fully taking on any one, singular party line. Well thank gawd for that. We need more independent thinkers – and more, we need more who have the influence that Dylan has had and continues to have.
Per Dylan and the peace protest movement it was more that he formed what can best be described as a strategic alliance with the Queen of Folk herself – Joan Baez – and Dylan put himself (perhaps unwittingly, perhaps strategically, although that sounds too “planned” when I do believe he genuinely loved Baez, and I doubt most would disagree with that statement), in the position of being the King of Folk and he gave the people what they wanted… until he didn’t… and then, beginning in Newport, he was boo-ed as a “traitor” to the Movement (with a major cap. on the M) and soon became “Judas.”
Dylan was, some believed (adamantly so,) “Judas” for supposedly “abandoning” (abandoned love?) something he never claimed to be a part of in the first place. No. Dylan was never Judas - Dylan was and remains simply Dylan – which is to say protean, doing his own thing, morphing from album to album and this is what keeps us coming back and this is what brings new generations to his music.
In the Scorsese documentary, “No Direction Home”, Baez talks about the fact that protestors would be somewhat mystified and wonder, When is Dylan going to turn up for a sit-in or whatever. Her own frustration, as she voices it during the documentary, Don’t you get it??? Because (with some exceptions) he often did not show up. Again, this doesn’t mean he lacked or lacks conviction, etc, only that he didn’t buy into the means and ways of that particular group of that their way of doing things would necessarily change things. Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t. Dylan had his own way. Maybe both worked – or would – but Dylan had his own path to forge and he did. And still does. A rebel with a cause.
Yes, sure, there are those who say Dylan never “really” loved Baez. Bullshit. As he put it, (I paraphrase, but it’s along these lines), “She hit me from a different world.” He had to have some great depth of feeling in order for any of it to work, for no question, there was a real chemistry and the two collided more than once.
So when people speak about Dylan using Baez as a vehicle it’s never so simple; ask me and I say there was love there. It's apparent even in photographs of the two or just look at the footage of Never Let Me Go from the Rolling Thunder tour (which, shortly after, he became re-involved with Baez. Nobody in any situation or in life (unless they’re really fucking boring, is one-dimensional.
Still, all that said, it would be naïve to insist (and with conviction!) that Dylan did not to some extent ride on Baez’s coattails knowing exactly what he was doing. He did. She invited him on stage and he went.
Baez’s thorn was that she expected he would reciprocate the stage-time she had given him during the ’65 tour and Dylan did not, choosing instead to save the limelight for himself, placing the spotlight solely on him. Maybe that was a lousy thing to do. I don’t know. He certainly had invited her on stage before then and they had performed together (Philharmonic 64, other times for sure, and later in the Rolling Thunder Revue), but not during the ’65 tour, but by then, things were essentially over and winding down – even if Baez didn’t know it, there was something afoot in the under-tow.
It’s no state secret that Dylan was hungry to succeed and had a clear mission when he went to New York City in the early sixties and had a clear mission, which he accomplished within an amazingly brief period of time.
Some loved him for it, giving them hope and holding Dylan up as "theirs" while others envied (and others were jealous – envy and jealousy are quite different things) and out of all of this, surely certain songs were born, one of them "Positively 4th Street.”
This is what happens. Maybe something is happening and we just don’t know what it is; maybe we’re not so different from Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones who wears suspenders, whose first name we or he can’t say because “I’ll get sued” Dylan says in one interview, yet he howls out the song and bangs it out on those piano keys that there can be little doubt that Dylan has his missiles locked and loaded onto one specific individual and while most of us have guessed who it is, or taken our best guess anyway (Max Jones of Melody Maker magazine, who was a critic and who didn’t ‘get’ Dylan’s music; other theories include Jeffrey John Owens, who, in 1965 as an intern for Time and who interviewed Dylan in right before the Newport Festival in 1965).
Whoever Mr. Jones is, he didn't get Dylan at all and likely wrote a nasty review that for reasons known only to Dylan cut Dylan to the core and of that, a great song was born. Maybe we owe gratitude of thanks to Mr. Jones after all.
There are other theories, though the above two seem to hold the most water. Of Jones Dylan said; "He's a pinboy. He also wears suspenders. He's a real person. You know him, but not by that name... I saw him come into the room one night and he looked like a camel. He proceeded to put his eyes in his pocket. I asked this guy who he was and he said, "That's Mr. Jones." Then I asked this cat, "Doesn't he do anything but put his eyes in his pocket?" And he told me, "He puts his nose on the ground." It's all there, it's a true story.”
This is not "Positively 4th Street", which seems more directed at a group of people, or a group during a specific time during his life. “Ballad of a Thin Man” – a song I keep coming back to for its raw power and verve and élan is clearly directed at one person and one can sense the bile and vitriol that seeps from Dylan’s every pore when he sings it. It must have been a rebirth to sing that song every time – a sort of baptismal cleansing: someone being exorcised – full of storm and fury, but signifying everything.
In the documentary Eat the Document, it is Pennebaker’s footage of that one song that makes that film. For that scene, Pennebaker hand-ground a special lens to get the halo effect of light that emanates through Dylan’s mop of curly hair: the blurs of oranges and other colors, but what we really see during that performance is pure vitriol - hate - bile – anger - a general really pissed-offness that I think most of us can relate to. It's a pretty universal feeling. We've all had our Mr. Jones.
Still, I haven’t answered the question as to why it is we cannot get Dylan off of our mind.
Or maybe why, more to the point, why it is that I can’t get Dylan off of my mind. Several factors lead me to this and clearly it is the music that must come first – the lyrics, specifically. There is nothing that comes close to Dylan, sounds like Dylan, or hits home like Dylan. Play “Wedding Song” and I am taken. This or “It’s Not Dark Yet” or “Dirge” or “You’re a Big Girl Now” (or “Up To Me”, shall I go on? No….) or any other number of songs that we can all name because it is virtually impossible to pick a so-called “favorite” (I’ve always found that mystifying, because speaking for the self, this is always a moving target.)
Just when I think I may have hit upon a favorite song or album at least (for an album is as close as I’m going to get), then I think of another album with great songs on it and I’m done for. There is no way to pick a favorite Dylan song, I think. Not for me. It is utterly dependent on circumstance, and by this I mean where I am in my life at a specific given moment. If you ask me on this day which Dylan song resonates it would have to be answer honestly “Positively 4th Street”. This song for myriad reasons. It may not be my “favorite” Dylan song (but then again, what is?) but right now, it is the most apt. It fits. It is the soundtrack, for lack of a better word, by which my life is being lived. This and "Up to Me" because right now, it is up to me... and why? Because, baby, I’m A Big Girl Now. The lines resonate:
Our conversation was short and sweet
It nearly swept me off my feet.
And I'm back in the rain, oh, oh,
And you are on dry land.
You made it there somehow
You're a big girl now.
and the response in the following verse?
Bird on the horizon, sittin' on a fence,
He's singin' his song for me at his own expense.
And I'm just like that bird, oh, oh,
Singin' just for you.
I hope that you can hear,
Hear me singin' through these tears.
I won’t explain, because the song explains.
Dylan has become a soundtrack that is applicable to various stages of my life, or various moments in any given (and any type) of relationship. Some couples have their “songs”, which is a different thing. This thing is a wholly private thing – it is a sound that is known only to me (or that sound at that moment attached to that memory – not that the song is known only to me, but the association would only make sense to me and perhaps to the other person involved in the specific situation).
Yes, other music applies: we all have our associations, but none cement the bond for me as much as Dylan does. Hear a song on the radio and think it applies to you and your life? Then the singer / songwriter has succeeded and done his or her job. That’s what you’re supposed to feel. Identity and identification with a song or a moment or an icon is the name of the music game.
* * *
“Have year ever heard of me?” then a roll of the piano and a close-up of those long-fingered beautiful hands as they move across the keys while in the background, Richard (Manuel) takes a few snorts of what appears to be coke from his little spoon and nifty dispenser. This is only after Dylan has also done a few lines, though I can’t tell if he did them on the piano top (off of the piano top?) or if he’s just laughing into it, for he is laughing uproariously before he pops his cigarette in his mouth and begins playing to the empty room of what appears to be a hotel restaurant that is being set for breakfast of lunch.
So, “Have you ever heard of me?” he says to no one in particular and everyone all at once. This is the beginning of Eat The Document, that rare and elusive film …
If my life were to have a soundtrack, then it would be composed entirely of Dylan songs. Not because other songs do not or could not apply or that I don’t listen to other music – I listen to a lot of other music and write a whole music column (The List of the Moment, owned by the famous Blogcritics, which is now part of Technorati) of new music and my tastes are broad and varied. It’s simply that no other music quite captures the feelings as quite as well or as much as Dylan’s does and there is something to be said for that (I will make an exception here: the aria “O Mio Babino Caro” which to me, is the sound of the perfect kiss).
It’s not an easy thing to capture the mood of one as manic and mercurial as I can often be, I’ll note that for starters, that it’s certainly not easy to express what a poet can usually express and for so many others. It is when I find myself without words that I find Dylan almost always does have the words.
As I noted, right now I am in my “Positively 4th Street”/”Up To Me” period. Well, this and others noted. That song and all of its betrayal, particularly certain passages, are applicable at this time. It’s a bitingly honest song, albeit pissy and pithy, but it’s beyond pissy; it has a furor and an anger and a tone of resignation but worse than this, there is betrayal, and that’s the part about it that I relate to the most.
The resignation and feeling of utter betrayal. One gives up. You try with certain people or one person – they suddenly become Judas, betraying you with a kiss and a smile – and this leaves you speechless and lost in a void. Judas never comes as expected, but disguised in the form of 'friend'. It’s the sound of the faithless. As Dylan says:
You say you lost your faith
But that's not where it's at
You have no faith to lose
And you know it
And I would be remiss if I didn’t add, just for spite (because I, like Dylan, like anyone, am not above spite and if you say you are not, then you’re full of it because all of us have that in us and it’s what we do with it that matters in the final account: that is the difference between a cruel and unkind person and and a kind person. We all have the capacity to feel hurt and betrayal and sound it out.)
So I bang it out in an article and sing “Positively 4th Street” at the top of my lungs when I’m driving about in my Mini - Fuck me for being human. But more, fuck the person or persons who made me feel the way I feel. It ought not be the injured party, the one who is feeling what I feel. No, I do not strike back – that is not in my nature. I may write, but not unkindly, pray pray. But if one could have a wish, as Dylan puts it so well, then yes, I do wish that such a person could be me for just one second, which is why this stanza is so damn perfect;
I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment
I could be you
Yes, I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
You'd know what a drag it is
To see you
How sad. It’s awful when it comes to that. When a relationship crashes and burns and leaves you wanting, but in time you realize that “Positively 4th Street” is a song about fighting back in some way. It is about resignation and regret more than anything, but it is also a turn on the heel and a turn away from what was, knowing, as he says, “what a drag it is to see you…”
Yes, I do wish for just one moment I could stand inside the other’s shoes because maybe then I’d understand, although I doubt it (and frankly, I am not sure I want to understand because the minute I understand, maybe I become the thing that I hate – that is worrisome). Perhaps Dylan does too, which is why he doesn’t dwell there, and moves quickly on to what a drag it is to see that person. It’s cold, but then, anyone who made you feel this way in the first place has to be pretty fucking cold him or herself. You don’t get to be this angry, this hurt, this embittered all by yourself. Someone helped get you there and not by “accident” no matter the disclaimers they may give. There was a point along the way where they had a conscious choice and they chose to screw you over. They made vows to you, oaths to you, and you accepted those vows and made vows in return.
Not all vows clash with vows made to some other; that's a provincial and limited way of thinking and I'll add, so very, very Father Dimsdale. I won't play Hester Prynne for anybody. So there you have it. Don’t come crying to me if I think of you and I think “Positively 4th Street”. Don’t come crying to me at all.
Feeling wist, put down, then it’s “Up To Me” which I have also felt and feel a lot lately. This and “Blood In My Eyes” although from what I am told the latter is about a prostitute, though frankly, I think you could apply the song to other relationships and in a terribly sad way that is not disrespectful. It’s just freaking sad. I think Dylan is more flexible than that. That you can take his (though this is a traditional song) words and apply them to more than just one situation. As he even said to Baez, half the time he says even he wasn’t sure what he was writing about. Okay; maybe that was disingenuous. No doubt, to some degree it is, because nobody could write such meaningful pieces without meaning to – if you follow.
I can’t honestly say that I truly believe Dylan never tried. Even in his Ed Bradley interview (which I personally think went rather terribly, for Dylan didn't open up at all and didn't try and the questions weren't that good...when held up against a document like No Direction Home, there is no comparison to be made and that's not a slam on Bradley - that's just the way the interview went and as a journalist, I know that sometimes the subject gives you little to work with), but in that interview, Dylan spoke of a certain “magic” that song writing had for him back in the sixties and used the example of “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, and I bought that at the time. I bought what Dylan was saying, which amounted to, “I’m all used up. I have nothing left to give anymore that can rival those songs.” But to look at what he’s pulled out these days with Modern Times. I don’t buy it anymore.
I think Modern Times is one of the best Dylan albums there has been and ranks right up there for me alongside my favorite which right now, and again, this is always a moving target, is “Bringing It All Back Home.”
“Someday Baby” is the perfect song for at least part of how I feel at the moment. And I can’t think of anyone who can’t relate to some extent to “When the Deal Goes Down”. Christ knows, whether you think a song like “When the Deal Goes Down” or “It’s Not Dark Yet” applies to you or not, one day you will as you leave that period (however long it lasts for you – for me it lasted through my early twenties) and then I realized, “Oh Shit, I’m mortal.” Cancer had a lot to do with that. That certainly banged one of the nails in the proverbial coffin. Trust me on this: it changes everything.
This time around however, with “When the Deal Goes Down” you get the sense that someone will be there this time; that when the deal does go down, one needn’t, or he won’t anyway, be alone. “It’s Not Dark Yet” was (is) a solitary and searching song with, it seems, nobody at the end of the line. It said, “We’re born alone, and we die alone.” But the whole album sounded like that. It was a down and out for the most part and that’s just where he was, just as if I had half the talent, if I were to produce an album now, it would all be “It’s Not Dark Yet” and “Standing in the Doorway” (another song that I feel in my bones these days), because this is just the miserable frame of mind in which I find myself.
Not so with “Modern Times”. With “Modern Times” we have the ability to change things. We are not “standing in the doorway crying” anymore, it’s more like “someday baby” and so on… and Christ, I like that a helluva lot more. It’s more proactive, and it’s more the Dylan I fell in love with years ago. I love “Not Dark Yet”. I’ve written whole articles about that one song, but I much prefer to move on…as does Dylan. I may be depressed at the moment, I may be feeling cheated and screwed over not because of some imagined thing (alas, that would be easier, although it would mean I’ve lost my mind, which would be worse… better to have been truly screwed over and know it, I suppose than some imaginary slight. If you ask me, but then, why the need for either, but then, that’s just me. I’m a peaceful kind of person and not the type to go about shitting on my anyone, but again… that’s just me. When I say a thing, I mean it… otherwise; I see little point in saying anything at all.
Hell, I have to tell you, and maybe this is embarrassing though I think no Dylan song could be truly embarrassing really – that for months - one Spring and Summer - I wholly identified with “Apple Suckling Tree, take no. 2” from the recordings at Big Pink (or “A Tree With Roots”) mostly identifying because of the lightness of the song and, I admit, because the original lyrics are named for a girl named Sadie (Sadie, by the way, like Sadi, Sayde, etc. is a common nickname for Sarah or Sara – a fact that I have found is little known in the United States, which surprises me, but there you have it. But yes, it is a nickname and now you know; take it on good authority).
I don’t know if Sadie has anything to do with Dylan’s Sara - his Sara that is, it’s just an interesting little factoid to know when you think of Dylan’s use of the name in songs – “Apple Suckling Tree” being one of them and, of course, “In Search of Little Sadie” in which our Sadie doesn’t fare so well.
It was good to have “Apple Suckling Tree” be the song of a summer, because it made me happy and damn it, I was happy. Dylan doesn’t necessarily have to be freakin’ profound to “work”. “Apple Suckling Tree No. 2” worked and did its job precisely because it conveyed a time and a place and a space better than anything that I (or anyone else) could have written. What it did was evoke a whole landscape of emotion and it still does for me. It does so much so that it’s difficult for me to hear that song for it signifies all the lightness that I have since lost.
Can we relate to certain songs? If some of us can, then I’d say the song is a success. “Apple Suckling Tree” I doubt was intended as an a-side number one hit. It sounds like a “toss-off” for lack of a better word, and a fun one, which is not to say that it was “easy” (just as for me the summer was by no means a toss-off,) but a thing to be taken lightly and so much light came in through those windows and in my life during those days; I could just as easily pick “Here Comes the Sun” by George Harrison as the theme song for that past summer and it would work almost as well, yet lack that something that the Dylan song has.
Dylan has been there with me through the mess of my life. “Lay, Lady, Lay” was the song of my sexual awakening, I only half-joke (I’ll let the lyrics speak for me here) but all those colors in your head – and etc. Yup. I got that part. At last I finally understood what that line meant. It had taken me so long, but at least I finally knew. Stay with your man a while. I would stay forever.
“Like a Rolling Stone” applied at one point, self-directed, as I think even Dylan to some extent directed the song at himself. I do not believe it was all outwardly directed and I do not believe it was all about Edie Sedgwick or some other shit that I hear. I think a lot more of what we write has to do with ourselves and I think that song, if you really listen, which no doubt you have, can easily be turned back around to apply to Dylan himself and he knew it at the time. Sure, I could be wrong, but I could be right.
So where am I now? I guess I’m at the rather resigned “Up to Me” phase of things. I could answer with a lot of Dylan songs. Part of me still wants to say “I’ll Keep It With Mine” because one still cares and cannot just stop caring with a snap of the fingers and so affection lingers. I suppose I could pick Todd Rundgren “Couldn’t We Still Be Friends” which applies incredibly well but it doesn’t capture the awful, sad wist of the moment like “Up To Me” does, because it doesn’t say the awful, heart-yanking and honest words, “You know one of us has got to hit the road, I guess it must be up to me.” This is about someone who just keeps trying and trying before finally accepting, like a noose about the neck that chokes and strangles, yet still, there is a kindess at the end of the song and within that kindness, so cleverly, Dylan manages to say in so many words what the subject is losing (see the very last line and you’ll see: “No-one else could play that tune…” Clearly, she has lost something of value.
I know you're long gone,
I guess it must be up to me.
Yet still he bangs his head against the wall until finally settling down and resigning himself to knowing that all he can offer now is the harmonica tune around his neck,
And if we never meet again, baby, remember me,
How my lone guitar played sweet for you that old-time melody.
And the harmonica around my neck, I blew it for you, free,
No one else could play that tune,
You know it was up to me.
In every way, these days, I know that there are likely a dozen or more songs I could pick by Dylan that could capture the myriad things I am feeling and that swing like a pendulum back and forth as my feelings swing, manic and wanting and wailing like a new-born child who has no understanding of the situation.
Sometimes there is no understanding. Sometimes that’s just it. Sometimes, you just need to listen, let someone else say it for you.
I feel a change comin’ on…
Thanks for listening,