I want to write a whole piece about one piece of music. I want to write a whole piece about one track labelled, or mislabeled, (whichever the case may be - either iTunes is right and the bootleg printing is wrong, I don't really know) but the track is on the bootleg, "Now Your Mouth Cries Wolf", the track labelled "CO81315", or on iTunes (corrected by iTunes) the track is "CO83185", which is how I've always known it. I still don't know which is correct.
This music only piece set with a steady rhythm, written to a four/four beat, harmonica riding you steadily down what I can only describe to me as a smooth flowing brown as molasses Mississippi river, smooth and easy and you just move with it.
CO83185 is an outtake from Blood On The Tracks. This harmonica-only no lyrics song was never released officially and can only be found on a bootleg called Now Your Mouth Cries Wolf (no doubt you could find the song on a bootleg by a different name). If ever a Dylan song had what he saw, the way the light hit a particular building at a certain time of day, then surely this unreleased number is one of the top. It is Dylan playing the harmonica with percussion behind him and a steady beat that goes up and down flowing easy and steady as the Mississippi that cut through Sioux City, where, he told Cynthia Gooding, he grew up. The sound of this song is so very Huck Finn you can see the color as you ride through these smooth flowing caramel colored harmonica waves, drifting along without a care in the world because Dylan’s hooked you with that sound and more, without words he’s conveyed vision and all without saying a thing but Dylan’s interviewer was right. If the song has a color, it is amber hued, late afternoon; that is the color of that "thin, wild mercury" sound that he was after and that he said if it had a color, well, this has to classify.
The closest song to CO83185 in feel and sound was album released, is as an outtake on Tell Tale Signs, and is the Alternate Take of “Most Of The Time” on the first disc. It is a harmonica heavy take of the song and unexpected for a song that we’ve always known as Lanois so swamp heavy. The alternate take doesn’t make the song any less painful – the words are still the same, the “most of the time” still an ellipsis that leaves you the listener unconvinced but it’s totally different from the cut that made the album which does not have that thin wild mercury sound. The alternate take on Tell Tale Signs does. It has a sense of movement and forward thrust, which the album version does not have because it has a wholly different sound, lost in New Orleans rich sexiness. The album version is an ellipsis. This version - the Tell Tale Signs version - is entirely different and does have that wild sound. It is that mercury sound and if it is a train, it is a train slipping fast along the rails, maybe a little out of control, but fast. A freight train comin’ on fast and that lends it a most of the time that is more urgent. A desperate wanting for things to be resolved; an itchy nervousness.
Dylan said that the song “I Want You” had that sound and it does. It has the same tightness. Here again, it is harmonica heavy lending it that sound of silver flash and a sense of movement, which is common to all of these songs. That wild mercury thing Dylan speaks of has definite movement and electricity to it. It is not something static, it is highly active and charged. It’s a little dangerous in some ways because it cuts close to the bone because it is so direct. In every song where Dylan achieves this sound, he is at his most direct (even when there are no lyrics, the song is direct). “I Want You” isn’t a pop song like “I Want To Hold Your Hand” which would have been its peer. It’s far more predatory in some way because it does have that wild mercury thing going on – it’s definite and self-assured.
There is just something about CO83185 that makes me want to drive or move fast. It is a song of movement. If I can be in the river, then put me in the river and baptize me to the sound of that song. Take me to the Mikve…whatever… It makes me want to be purified. It is the sound of quitting everything impure and emerging pure from the crystalline waters pure and sanctified out of the other side. When I think of quitting smoking, it is always to the sound of that song.
I think it would make you quit anything that wasn't good for you because it has that purifying thing going on - it has the sound of rushing water or something shhhh-ing by you or over you; something cleansing. It's Dylan's slippery harmonica that flashes like an eel in the night, submerged and electric taking away all that is impure with a cool, quick, unmerciful zap.
Dylan's music only pieces have always interested me - but none so much as this one. Others may be big band or as a friend said, a hesitation waltz with the bride's step thrown in or a tango of sorts and I can see that. "Wigwam" has the same beat as Astor Piazzola's "Por Una Cabeza" and is a similar rhythm. It struck me as odd, but there you have it. Both have the bride's hesitation step; a bridal waltz in four/four time.
But none strike me as much as CO83185. It has all of the elements of the wild, thin mercury sound as much as "I Want You" does because in the final account that wild, thin mercury sound seems to live somewhere in the harmonica if it lives anywhere, it has its roots there. The production is important, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't hear that same wild, mercury sound in "All Along The Watchtower" with the wind whipping in that harmonica sound flashing wet all about the tower. It's just that sound that lends it that "wild, thin sound". It may be the only song on the album that I can think of (maybe you can think of others…) but to me, it is this one stands out above all; CO83185.
I don't mean to write about Dylan's wild, mercury sound anyway although that certainly could be a full-length piece. Certainly he said he felt all of Blonde on Blonde most captured that sound if any album captured it. "Visions of Johanna" certainly has it, but to me, "I Want You" has it more than most any other song (arguably more than any song) and, perhaps, "All Along the Watchtower" which just has that thing going on, invited or uninvited, intentional or unintentional. All of Blonde on Blonde which Dylan said felt captured it more than any other album, but again, I can't discount parts of JWH and this particular outtake and what about those outtakes on Tell Tale Signs?
Dylan succeeds in fully engaging our every sense. His music is vision music to be sure and many hued. In the ’78 Playboy interview, Dylan said of the sound he heard, the sound in his head was, “The ethereal twilight, you know. It’s the sound of the street with sun-rays, the sun shining down at a particular time, on a particular building…The sound of bells and distant railroad trains…”
Dylan said that he looked for the sound he heard in his head and to put that down on tracks, on record, and that sound is a “thin, wild, mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold…” Dylan said it was on Blonde on Blonde that he felt he really got closest to that sound, but that other albums captured it as well, notably Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. That thin, wild mercury sound creates a vision. You cannot only hear it but you can see it when you hear a song like “Visions of Johanna” or “All Along The Watchtower”.
Dylan told Playboy in ’78 that Yes, the song “I Want You” also had that thin, wild mercury sound. What does that mean exactly – listen to Blonde On Blonde and there is a thin filament of fineness to it. It is tensile and taught and bright. It makes me think of another artist - Philippe Petit - (the wire walker featured in the film Man On Wire). Petit said, “To me, it’s really so simple, that life should be lived on the edge. You have to exercise rebellion. To refuse to tape yourself to the rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge. Then you will live your life on a tight rope.” Dylan has his music running on that “tight rope” all wild mercury and reed thin – an electric, tensile thin fine wire. His wild, mercury sound often incorporates “vision” songs, though not all vision songs have that wild mercury sound.
On Blonde On Blonde “Visions Of Johanna” is a heavily painted song, chock full of visuals. It’s atmospheric and some of Dylan’s songs tend more toward atmosphere than vision (like “All Along The Watchtower”, which is visual but more atmospheric). “Visions Of Johanna” has that thin, wild mercury sound “these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind” and that “make it all seem so cruel”. There is Louise who is delicate and who seems like the mirror, and Johanna – the “ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face.” Lights flickering, heat pipes coughing, lovers intertwined, girls on the D train, cityscapes. You know that this wild, thin mercury sound just has something to do with the reed thin sound of the harmonica on any song on this album, including “I Want You” as Dylan said. As to visions, besides all we are given and all we see we are privy to what is in his head, “these visions of Johanna...” It has the sound and the vision. We are afforded a view into this room to say nothing of the inside line we have of the narrator’s head whose “conscience explodes” while “the harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain. ” A slick, wet harmonica that slides, flashing in the dark night like an electric eel submerged.
You can hear that mercury sound in Dylan’s influences. Think of John Jacob Niles and his Appalachian dulcimer. Dylan was well aware of John Jacob Niles. Dylan said in No Direction Home, “He used to play a song called ‘Go Away From My Window.’ He used to sing a bunch of eerie spooky ballads I only saw him a few times but he was highly impressive and left a lasting memory.” Dylan was also taken with Johnny Ray who, when he sang, Dylan said had strange incantations in his voice (No Direction Home). Dylan seems drawn to the mystical. He said of his family’s old radio when he found it that it had mystical overtones. The hidden Pandora’s box of the past that he opens up for us and shares his collective influences that combine in that way to create that wild, mercury sound has a special voodoo all its own.
That wild, thin mercury sound that Dylan is after on in his music has been with him since the beginning and he sought out in the music of others. You can hear it at certain times in the absolute clarity of Joan Baez’s voice. Think of Baez singing “Virgin Mary (Had One Son)”. Or better still, watch her perform it, see the video of her alone beneath a single spotlight with her acoustic guitar: it’s absolutely haunting and although it is acoustic somehow has that metallic bright spark of electricity. Of Baez, Dylan said, “She was someplace in the back of my mind.”
Willie Nelson also has that sound wild mercury sound, all electric and so, for that matter, does Hank Williams each in his own way. Nelson has that ultra fine, mellow, but still reed-like voice. You can hear it when he sings “You Were Always On My Mind”, and Hank Williams may be country and western (or more than) but it’s all in the way in which he strums and picks at that guitar; It’s tight and precise and that lends it that wild, thin mercury sound.
Dylan’s fantasies of freight trains didn’t just come out of thin air, they came out of other music: the likes of Box Car Willie and songs like “Hank and the Hobo” on the album Freight Train Heart. But it’s more than simply the tales told and the songs from which Dylan draws on, it’s that sound again. It runs through all of this music: right there, bang on. Not a beat missed. Listen to Hank Williams sing “Hey Good Lookin’” and it’s all tight picking taught guitar strings with a steel guitar sound, all slide, but with that mercury ride again. You can see the genesis of where Dylan first heard that sound; an amalgam. Hank William’s “Lonesome Whistle” correlates: it always seems to come back around to that distant train whistle, ever present in the distance in Hibbing and with which Dylan keeps a steady beat with his harmonica.
The sound of "CO83185" is so very Huck Finn you can see the color as you ride through this smooth flowing caramel-colored harmonica waves, drifting along without a care in the world because Dylan’s hooked you with that sound again and more, without words he’s conveyed vision - sight and sound. If the song has a color, it is amber-hued, a late afternoon wash of lemon light in the summer or even winter but it's warm. It is a warm light. No white light/white heat, just warmth at every turn, every slip of the note, every flash of that harmonica is a wet and yet oddly warmer key somehow flashing silver. That is the trick of the wild, mercury sound. Silver and warm, amber and silver - a cool paradox as we brave the wild, mercury rapids of Dylan's discography.
thanks for listening