Saturday, 31 May 2008

BOB DYLAN'S SOUNDTRACK SONGS PART THREE:

CROSS THE GREEN MOUNTAIN

 …All must yield
To the Avenging God…


     In the mud and the blood of the makeshift trench, the soldier boy from Belvedere, South Carolina, is about to breathe his last. The Yankee bullet which had pierced his groin had come from some anonymous source, from the other side of the swirling mist mixed with the sulphurous battle smoke. The soldier boy had never had much chance to be a hero. He’d enlisted with the rebs at sixteen after his family farm had been burned out by Union raiders, killing his mama, his grandmama and his five year old little sister Ellie Mae. They were dirt poor. Couldn’t even afford a single nigger slave.  The soldier boy had been in town with his pa, getting supplies. By the time they got back the Union troops had come and gone. They stood on the hill next to the farm, as the sun went down, both open mouthed as they saw the smoke rising. Neither of them could speak. From that day on all the soldier boy had wanted to do was kill as many of them damn bastard Yankees as he could. The recruiting officer must have known he was under age, but it was said that the word had come down from Richmond not to be too particular about such things. The soldier boy never had a chance to kill no Yankees, though. This was his first battle and he’d been thrown right into the front line. As soon as they’d obeyed the order to charge, a hail of Yankee bullets had hit them. They seemed to come out of nowhere. Maybe they’d just sprung up from the bowels of hell. The soldier boy is losing consciousness now, the memories of his life before the war flashing before him. Milking Jemimah, their only cow, at six in the morning. Raking in the corn. Digging and digging them seeds into the ground…
            But now the everyday memories disappear and all the soldier boy can see is a dark and angry red sky, out of which snarling demon Yankees keep falling and falling and falling, swords flashing and guns a-blazin’. As his eyes glaze over for the last time, he is pulled away into the depths of a fiery, monstrous dream…

            One of Bob Dylan’s thematic and sartorial obsessions in his music of the new millennium has been with the American Civil War. Onstage he seems to inhabit the persona of a southern riverboat gambler, dressed in fine silks and bowties. His songs frequently reference Henry Timrod, the ‘poet of the confederacy’. This lacing of contemporary material with apparently random nineteenth century phrases gives much of his modern writing a strangely timeless resonance. Dylan has stated publicly that he seems a great number of parallels between the US today and the Civil War period. This might seem like one of Bob’s deliberately gnomic utterances, designed perhaps to throw us off the scent of what he’s really thinking…  But the major theme of Dylan’s recent work is that of the shadows the past casts on the present. When asked about his view on the Iraq war Dylan merely shrugged and muttered … there’s ALWAYS a war on somewhere… His bizarre 2003 film Masked And Anonymous presented a vision of modern America as a kind of civil-war-torn banana republic. Dylan seems to take a heavily fatalistic view of history. By constantly referring to images and phrases from various stages of the past, he contextualises what is happening in the present as a kind of inevitable repetition of deeply inbuilt patterns, as if as a race we humans are acting out some kind of horribly predestined series of negative and destructive impulses.
            This is not to suggest that Cross The Green Mountain, written by Dylan for the soundtrack of the 2003 American Civil War epic Gods and Generals, is a song ‘about’ Iraq, or the ‘War on Terror’ or any of our other modern wars. Any attempt to read it as some kind of direct comment on contemporary politics can only struggle with superficial wish fulfilment. Dylan made his name as a singer who was not afraid to comment on the perverted morality of modern ‘Gods and Generals’. Many of his most powerful early ‘finger pointing’ songs commented directly on how religion is twisted to justify carnage on a vast scale - most obviously With God On Our Side, with its polemical and scathing view of such justifications through history, ending in the unambiguous …If God is on our side/ He’ll stop the next war…  In the greatest and most viciously scathing of these early ‘protest songs’, Masters Of War (still performed regularly in the post-millennial live shows) he adopts a tone of righteous spiritual outrage: … All the money you made will never buy back your soul… he spits. And later, most drastically of all …Even Jesus would never forget what you do…  As befits a man in his sixties, the modern Dylan has a less obviously ‘angry’ tone. Cross The Green Mountain progresses slowly, like a stately funeral march, with its sadly reflective narrative and tone. Yet, here perhaps more than in any other Dylan song of the 2000s, a potent and ultimately highly disturbing view of the basic corruption of human morality is suggested. But Dylan no longer needs to sneer. He’s ‘younger’ than that now.  In this song events are recounted with humility, even tenderness. The narrator does not cast judgements. Yet the horror of what he recounts cannot fail, if we listen closely, to chill us to the bone…

            The American Civil War was the first really modern war; the first to feature trench warfare on a major scale and the first in which new technology such as mines, torpedoes, rifles and ironclad ships were used, in which the existence of railways speeded up the movement of troops and the telegraph sent news and communications rapidly across the country. It was also the first war to be photographed.  For the first time, war became a truly industrialised process, a factor which resulted in far more widespread and efficient methods of slaughter than had previously been possible. Industrialised warfare also of course creates the opportunity for highly merchandised war-related industries and vast profits for the ‘Masters of War’ who owned and controlled them.  Perhaps this is why Dylan appears to view all modern wars as extensions of this model. So while it is fanciful to suggest that Cross The Green Mountain is ‘about’ Iraq or Afghanistan, by writing about the Civil War Dylan sets up poetic and historical resonances that make the feelings he expresses equally relevant to the conflicts of today.

  Cross The Green Mountain is a kind of slow, deathly waltz, dominated by highly evocative violin (presumably played by Larry Campbell), military-style drums, swirling organ and Dylan’s beautifully-paced, underplayed vocal. The ragged edges of that cracked voice set up a tension against the smooth, unhurried progression of the song’s distinctive and evocative melody. This ancient-sounding voice is steeped in a harshly-preserved dignity of tone which recalls that of the great mountain singers like Dylan’s hero Ralph Stanley. It is of this world, yet somehow not of it. This is highly appropriate as the events the song describes are simultaneously a depiction of grim reality and a terrible dream. The song’s circular timelessness and wistful quality recalls a previous Dylan epic Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands. At times we can imagine him singing with eyes closed, completely enraptured in this meditation on death and spiritual transcendence.

            The poetry of the song is precise and very carefully constructed. Each line is short and perfectly regular, without any of Dylan’s characteristic metre-bending. Much of the language is deceptively simple - there is no ‘chain of flashing images’ here. In accordance with Dylan’s contemporary poetic method, many of the lines allude to or quote from a wide range of other sources. Not surprisingly, some of the phrases Dylan uses recall those late nineteenth century American poets who wrote about the Civil War itself. Consider the tone of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Killed At The Ford, describing the death of a young soldier…

             Sudden and swift a whistling ball
            Came out of a wood, and the voice was still;
            Something I heard in the darkness fall,
            And for a moment my blood grew chill;
            I spake in a whisper, as he who speaks
            In a room where some one lying dead;
            But he made no answer to what I said.

             One can almost imagine Dylan singing those lines in the same tone of hushed awe to the tune of Cross The Green Mountain. And here are some lines from Herman Melville’s poem Running The Batteries, describing the sinking of a ship:  

            The barge drifts doomed, a plague-struck one,
            Shoreward in yawls the sailors fly.
            But the gauntlet now is nearly run,
            The spleenful forts by fits reply,
            And the burning boat dies down in the morning's sky.

            Again there is a tone of reverent wonder so common in reactions to the Civil War, which even its main protagonists recognised as a terrible (and avoidable) tragedy. It’s possible to hear this tone not only in Timrod’s work but in that of the greatest of American poets of the era, Walt Whitman.  Whitman’s post-Civil War poem When Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloom’d might be seen as a kind of model for the near-death dreamscape of Cross The Green Mountain:

              Come lovely and soothing death
             Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
             In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
             Sooner or later delicate death.
             Prais'd be the fathomless universe,
             For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
             And for love, sweet love- but  praise! praise! praise!
             For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.

             As with so many of his other modern songs, Dylan laces Cross The Green Mountain with quotes, allusions and half-references from a range of other works. This further helps in positioning the song’s lyrics in a kind of timeless space. Several of the references are from Civil War poets. The phrase …dim Atlantic line…  occurs in Timrod’s Charleston (1861). The line …the foe had crossed from the other side… can be found in Nathaniel Graham Shepherd’s Roll Call. Dylan’s lines  Something came up/ Out of the sea… recalls Longfellow’s poem Daybreak, which begins …A wind came up out of the sea… Dylan’s references to the ‘Captain’ as …the great leader laid low… seems to be a deliberate reference to Whitman’s lament for the murder of Abraham Lincoln O, Captain, My Captain! And the lines in the song’s penultimate stanza, where the mother is offered false hope about the son’s recovery directly recall Whitman’s Come Up From The Fields Father

              O a strange hand writes for our dear son –
             O stricken mother’s soul!
            All swims before her eyes- flashes with black-
                       she catches the main words only;
             Sentences broken—gun-shot wound in the breast,
                        cavalry skirmish, taken to hospital,
             At present low, but will soon be better.
            Alas poor boy, he will never be better…
            While they stand at home at the door he is dead already…

             There are other non-Civil War references. Dylan’s phrase …Stars fell over Alabama.. refers to the title of a 1934 jazz standard composed by Frank Perkins and Mitchell Parish, later recorded by (among many others) Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Ricky Nelson. The title refers back to a renowned meteor shower which occurred in 1833 and the phrase itself has now been incorporated into Alabama license plates. Dylan’s …Heaven blazing in my head…clearly recalls W.B. Yeats poem Lapis Lazuli, written about the coming of World War One, which includes the phrase ….Heaven blazing into the head….  Then, as ever, there are the Biblical allusions. A beast ‘rises from the sea’ in Daniel 7 and another, the ‘Great Beast’ in Revelations 13. The phrase …all must yield/ To the Avenging God… recalls Nahum 1:2:

… The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD is avenging and wrathful; the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies…

            In Cross The Green Mountain we see a ruined, devastated landscape. Although the narrator - presumably a soldier on a battlefield in his death throes - has very pious hopes and dreams, the God which rules his world is a cruel one. Only death, like the ‘lovely and soothing death’ in Whitman’s poem above, brings relief. Everything is being swept aside by the hand of a malicious deity. Dylan’s tone is wistful, regretful, without a shred of anger. His narrator sounds like he has accepted his inevitable fate. Yet this otherworldly detachment only adds to the power of the bitter indictment of human corruption that the song presents. There are no graphic descriptions of carnage, but much betrayal and disillusionment. As the narrator descends into the spirit world beyond the ‘green mountain’ his hopeless resignation to his destiny only throws the harsh revelations he experiences into sharp relief.
            The first verse begins with the narrator sitting in a place of repose, by a stream which may well by the river of death. The mountain has been crossed and now is the time for reflection. In contrast to the water is the fire of …Heaven blazing in my head… Immediately we are thrown into his ‘monstrous dream’. The use of ‘monstrous’ suggests that whatever it is that …came up out of the sea…. is in fact some kind of monster, a Great Beast that will sweep all before it. The final lines here are perhaps the most telling. The ‘monster’ has Swept through the land of/ the rich and the free.… The USA is often referred to patriotically as the land of ‘the brave and the free’. The adaptation suggests great cynicism about how the ideals of America’s founding fathers have been compromised. To some these lines have suggested that the song has a direct correlation to the attack on The World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. Such a resonance does seem to be implied, but the Great Beast we see rising here can also be taken to symbolise any kind of ‘monster’ that humanity’s folly may create.
            In the following lines the narrator’s closeness to death is made explicit. …I look into the eyes… he sings …of my merciful friend… Death itself is that ‘merciful friend’ who will soon release him not only from his physical pain but also from the sickening awareness of the awful nature of the great insanity that rages around him. He can taste the …sad yet sweet… memories of his life on his tongue, but already he is looking forward to a release into heaven. Yet right now he seems to be subsumed in a kind of hell on earth, where …altars are burning… The line …the foe has crossed over from the other side…, while it may on one level be a description of the movements of the enemy, also seems to suggest that the Devil is walking the Earth. …We can feel them come… he tells us, as if this is an enemy ‘within’ as well as without.
            The fourth verse is perhaps the most graphic and evocative in the song, and the most suggestively powerful. By borrowing Timrod’s …dim Atlantic line… Dylan places an authentic nineteenth century phrase into the song, conjuring up a vision of a line of troops in the distance with a …ravaged land… behind it. Yet the picture of part of East Coast America in ruins has strong resonances of the 9/11 attack. The next lines then take an extraordinary turn. …The light's coming forward/ And the streets are broad… Dylan sings …All must yield to the Avenging God… Is this ‘Avenging God’ the same ‘Great Beast’ which comes out of the sea in the first verse? Is this a kind of ‘God of War’? Certainly it seems to be the kind of God that the pious narrator believes in - one whose main purpose is to enact vengeance and destruction. The final line seems to be the key to the whole song - as if it is being suggested that the state of war is one which is brought about by human belief in a vicious, unforgiving deity, the existence of which justifies mass slaughter. The Old Testament Jehovah, perhaps, who slaughters the first born… or the version of Allah who rewards suicide bombers who an eternity of bliss for destroying the infidel… The fact that the narrator seems to accept such a deity so calmly only adds to how chilling these lines are, especially in the post-9/11 context.
            The rest of the song is less frightening, and shows the narrator preparing for death with a great degree of self-possession. The next lines …the world is old/ the world is gray… suggest that he knows there is no black and white morality here. At no point in the song does he suggest that one side in the war is more evil than the other. He narrator waxes philosophical: …Lessons of life/ Can't be learned in a day… he tells us, as he begins to drift into listening to …the music that comes from a far better land…  Already, heaven is calling him. His consciousness begins to drift and splinter. In the next verse he tells us the story of the ‘Great Leader’ who is killed by his own men. …Close the eyes of our Captain… he tells us. The allusion to Whitman’s Captain, O Captain is fairly clear here, suggesting that the ‘Great Leader’ refers to Abraham Lincoln, although the reference could be to one of the narrator’s own military commanders.
            The next four verses see the soldier preparing himself to meet his Maker. I feel that the unknown world is so near… he tells us.  He asserts that he was …loyal to truth and to right… and that  …virtue lives and cannot be forgot…, so staking his claim to heaven (or at least reassuring himself that it’s where he’s headed). He contrasts himself against those who have …blasphemy on every tongue… and tells himself, despite his predicament to …Serve God and be cheerful…, while paying tribute to his brave companions, who …never dreamed of surrendering/ They fell where they stood… In the last of these verses he already seems to see himself ascending to heaven. … Stars fell over Alabama/ I saw each star/ You're walking in dreams/ Whoever you are… he tells us, contrasting this with a description of the frozen ground he lies on and his knowledge of the finality of defeat: …the morning is lost…
         
In the penultimate verse, which again (as we saw earlier) references Whitman, there is a sudden shift away from the soldier’s perspective. Maybe the soldier is imagining the scene, though, as the mother receives the telegram saying her son is wounded but will recover soon. …But he'll never be better… he tells us, now so detached that he is looking down upon his own dead body. …He's already dead… The last verse sees our hero ascending into heaven, being …lifted away/ In an ancient light/ That is not of day… The final, rather strange and ambiguous lines  They were calm, they were blunt/ We knew them all too well/ We loved each other more than we ever dared to tell… seem to imply that the war has been between members of the same family (which in the American Civil War was often the case). This adds a poignant coda to the epic lament, suggesting just how unnecessary the entire conflict was.
            It may seem odd that such a major piece of work is hidden away on a relatively obscure film soundtrack. But throughout his career Dylan has always kept some of his best songs in partial obscurity, the most famous example being The Basement Tapes. Discovering such songs has always been part of a Dylan fan’s most joyous experiences. Cross The Green Mountain is, like Dylan’s other ‘soundtrack songs’, specifically written for a purpose - to illustrate the theme of a particular film. As with the other ‘soundtrack songs’, though, this process seems to have functioned as a creative spur, because here he takes us much further than the song’s origins might suggest. Although it could be called an ‘anti-war’ song, it is certainly not any kind of ‘protest song’ and though it may have resonances with current events it is more concerned with deep, universal themes. On one level it is a meditation on death. The narrator’s humble piety is immensely moving, as is his awe at the power of the ‘Avenging God’. But the way in which Dylan deliberately makes the narrator so naïve suggests that such unadorned faith may actually be insufficient for those of us who have to live in the real world today, in which we are caught up in a kind of ‘Civil War’ between apparent opposing but ultimately very similar religious world views. So the song does relate to the present human condition, although its conclusions could equally apply in say, 1914 or 1939 or 1962. Cross The Green Mountain stands with other great Dylan epics like A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall or  Chimes Of Freedom or Idiot Wind  as being both contemporary yet applicable to many other key moments in the unfolding of the tragically flawed human story.

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Saturday, 31 May 2008 08:01:53 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [13]  | 
Wednesday, 30 April 2008

BOB DYLAN’S SOUNDTRACK SONGS PART TWO:

WAITING FOR YOU

 
Happiness is but a state of mind.
Anytime you want, you can cross the state line….

 

  Waiting For You was written for the soundtrack of Callie Khouri’s 2002 movie, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, a wryly bittersweet and avowedly feminist tale centred around the complex relationship between a mother and daughter. As with Things Have Changed, Dylan seems to have used the song as an exercise in rather oblique storytelling, which broadly follows the theme of the film. In the movie a well known female playwright Siddalee Walker (Sandra Bullock) engages the wrath of her eccentric and feisty mother Vivienne (Ellen Burstyn) when she appears to confess in a (somewhat doctored) interview to feeling rather unhappy about her childhood. Siddalee is subsequently kidnapped by her mothers’ life long friends in the ‘Ya Ya Sisterhood’ (a kind of proto-feminist ‘support group’ they had formed together in their youth) so that mother and daughter can be confronted with each other. Eventually, with the Sisterhood’s help, Siddalee comes to understand the ‘dark side’ of her mother’s character, so leading to an eventual  rapprochement between the two. The film is a warm, lightly comedic tribute to the potential strength of female solidarity.

            Waiting For You is a stately country waltz, dominated by plaintive steel guitar and backed by an oddly stiff, almost military drum pattern. Although it expresses a degree of anguish, its imagery and its delivery are playful, allusive and ultimately reassuring. Dylan’s voice begins by sounding cracked and bitter, but becomes increasingly warm as the song progresses and we sense a kind of optimism building …Hope may vanish… Dylan confides  …but it never dies…  

Dylan has always written love songs, of a kind. But only in his Nashville Skyline ‘romantic phase’ did he really seem interested in conventional romance. Mostly he has written songs that focus on particularly difficult or poignant moments in relationships. Often these are broken love relationships, where the singer looks philosophically at what has happened. …Don’t think twice… he tells the girl he is leaving ..it’s all right… as he wanders off down another dusty road, ‘one too many mornings’ and ‘a thousand miles behind’. … I am closing the book/ On the pages and the text/ And I don't really care What happens next… he sighs in Going Going Gone.  Other Dylan songs focus on different kinds of love. Dylan seems particularly interested in the joys and agonies of parental affection. This may be expressed sweetly and hopefully, as in Forever Young or poignantly, as in New Morning’s shimmering Sign On The Window  when the narrator sings ….have a bunch of kids who call me pa/ That must be what it’s all about… in a kind of faltering tone, as if trying to convince himself that what he’s saying is true.  In perhaps Dylan’s most tragic song Tears Of Rage (which quite deliberately echoes similar themes in Shakespeare’s King Lear) the anguished parent of a child who has turned away from his or her values rages against the dying of the light …Now the heart is filled with gold, as if it was a purse/But oh what kind of love is this, that goes from bad to worse…

Waiting For You can be seen as an address by Ya Ya Sisterhood’s anguished mother Vivienne to the estranged daughter. Like Tears Of Rage it deals with the dilemmas of parental love when the child has grown up. You can almost hear the parental sighs at the child’s wilfulness: …I’m letting her have her way…  the narrator sings, and …the poor girl always wins the day…  All this is a prelude to the meeting between mother and child that forms the core of the film’s story. Dylan builds this up towards the end of the first verse with some delicious allusion. As the music swirls, we seem to be in some kind of dancehall (on the ‘outskirts of town’ no doubt!) The dance appears to be increasing wild, erratic and drunken, with the …whiskey flyin’ into my head… The band is playing so hard that …the fiddler’s arm has gone dead… There is a suggestion of small-town claustrophobia: …talk is beginning to spread…  The second verse appears to deal in sentimental cliché, as the narrator cries self-pityingly into her whiskey bottle: …It’s been so long since I held you tight/ Been so long since we said goodnight…  and …The taste of tears is bittersweet/ When you’re near me, my heart forgets to beat…  But the third verse rescues us from this maudlin direction with perhaps the song’s most charming lines …Well the king of them all is starting to fall/ I lost my gal at the boatman’s ball… Dylan lets his tongue linger over these lines, which allude to a nineteenth-century minstrel song De Boatman’s Ball, written by Daniel Decatur Emmett, the composer of Dixie (covered memorably by Dylan in his own movie from the same year Masked And Anonymous) . The narrator now appears to be laughing at herself, having lost her daughter to the world of fame and entertainment. The next line …The night has a thousand hearts and eyes… alludes to the jazz standard The Night Has A Thousand Eyes, a song of the same name performed by Dylan’s early compatriot Bobby Vee and a famous short poem by the late nineteenth century poet Francis William Bourdillon:

The night has a thousand eyes,
              And the day but one;
           Yet the light of the bright world dies
                  With the dying sun.

 The mind has a thousand eyes,
                   And the heart but one:
           Yet the light of a whole life dies
                   When love is done.

Dylan tweaks this lovelorn line slightly to emphasise the steadfastness of the narrator’s ‘heart’, as she emphasises how she will …stay on top of things…  She will keep that ‘eye of the heart’ open, despite her estrangement from her daughter. In the last verse she begins to empathise with the daughter more strongly: …Another deal gone down, another man done gone/ You put up with it all, and you carry on… Clearly she admires her courage and steadfastness, as one woman to another, confessing that I'd bet the world and everything in it on you… Finally she offers humble solace in the clever couplet Happiness is but a state of mind/ Anytime you want, you can cross the state line…  The pun on ‘states’ is one many American writers have used from Whitman onwards. Here you can hear her bravely brushing away the tears and wishing her daughter the best, hoping that she will be able to give her comfort. Now the band has packed away its instruments and the mother sits alone in the deserted dancehall. In her drunken state she can still hear the waltzes playing and she is picturing her little girl as she was, small and helpless. The feelings of abandonment and betrayal have been resolved and despite her pride she is ready to give hope and comfort.

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 Next up will be the monumental Cross The Green Mountain. Watch this space!

Thanks as ever to Expecting Rain the best source for Dylan-related material.

As usual I welcome any comments in the box below or at chris@chrisgregory.org





Wednesday, 30 April 2008 20:51:38 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [17]  | 
Saturday, 12 April 2008

 BOB DYLAN’S SOUNDTRACK SONGS

  …I’m in the wrong town…. I should be in Hollywood….

 

        If you strain your eyes hard enough at a Dylan performance, you will spot a small gold figurine wobbling on top of one of his band’s amplifiers. It’s there at virtually every gig. Dylan has even been known to grasp it and hold it aloof in apparent triumph during his po-faced Brechtian finales. The figurine is the Oscar Dylan won in 2001 for the song Things Have Changed from the film The Wonder Boys. As ever with Dylan it’s hard to tell whether he’s indulging in tongue-in-cheek self-mockery or whether he’s genuinely proud to have won the award. Perhaps he’s doing both simultaneously. His own creative contributions to cinema in directoral and screen writing modes - 1966’s jumpy, chaotic Eat The Document; 1978’s gloriously amateurish panorama Renaldo And Clara and 2001’s slyly political Masked And Anonymous - have been explicitly anti-Hollywood in
style, following the dictats of the improvisational ‘hand held camera’ methodology of Francois Truffaut and the French New Wave ‘auteurs’ of the early 1960s (for whom Dylan has often professed great admiration) (see shot from Truffaut's Les Quatre Cent Coups to right). Yet it’s also possible to trace a fascination with certain types of iconic Hollywood movies in Dylan’s work from the mid-70s onwards. The Desire album (1976) casts its protagonists as figures in various movie genres - Mafia epics, doomed adventure stories, murder mysteries, spaghetti westerns. 1985’s Empire Burlesque is liberally - if somewhat bizarrely - filled with snatches of dialogue from the films of Humphrey Bogart and others. The epic Brownsville Girl (1986) is a series of rumination centering around the Gregory Peck movie The Gunfighter (see above left) 1989’s Man In The Long Black Coat and much of the Under The Red Sky album (1990) are written like a series of cinematic screen directions.

Whatever his personal interests in ‘anti-cinema’, Dylan’s interest in generic Hollywood movies form part of his creative focus on how the essential cultural language of America is framed. These interests have lately manifested themselves rather differently. In recent years Dylan has contributed several songs to the soundtracks of various American movies. Some of these films were successful, others bombed without trace. Dylan seems to have treated these songs as specific exercises in writing about a particular theme. The songs often attempt to place the listener inside the mind of characters within whatever film Dylan is composing for.  This series of essays, which is a follow up to the Modern Times Track By Track series that I’ve been putting up over the last eighteen months or so, looks at Dylan’s ‘soundtrack songs’ of the 2000s, examining how they relate to both the cinematic medium and wider contemporary concerns.    

 

(1) THINGS HAVE CHANGED (2000)

 ….All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie…

 
          
It’s a hot summer day in some anonymous American town. The Man Who Has Seen It All shakes his finger of XR Crown Royal lazily, watching the thick, translucent yellow liquid slide around the tumbler. Nothing sticks. He stares through the misty glass. Main Street is busy as usual. It’s rush hour now. Car drivers gnash their teeth as the purple fumes rise and horns blare. Behind him, the waitresses glide by almost soundlessly, dispensing coffee refills. He leans back in his chair. For just a moment he lowers his
silver-framed reflective shades to watch one of the waitresses lean against the counter, filing her nails meticulously while staring off somewhere into space. She’s got a great ass, and she knows it. Maybe she catches his eye. Maybe not. The Man takes a deep breath and a gulp of whiskey. Behind the shades, his eyes show only resignation. What else does he have? Two divorces, three uncontested alimonies… A gleaming 1959-vintage Cadillac.  A long-suffering lawyer, four healed-up gunshot wounds. And a woman who’s gonna take him for everything his has, who doesn’t so much suck his dick as suck out his soul. Of course, it wasn’t always like this. Yet… what you gonna do?  There’d always been too much temptation at every crossroads…

        Things Have Changed was written for the 2000 film The Wonder Boys, directed by Curtis Hansen and starring Michael Douglas (right) as (the ironically named) Grady Tripp, a disillusioned middle-aged and formerly radical college professor whose personal and professional life has been plunged into turmoil. The film is a witty examination of the main character’s mid-life crisis, reflecting wryly on how he struggles to complete his latest novel while conducting an affair with his boss’ wife and struggling to contain his own excessive alcohol habit. There may well have been personal reasons for Dylan’s interest in such a story, if the autobiographical implications of songs of mid-life confusion like Standing In The Doorway and Trying To Get To Heaven (Before They Close The Door) on 1997’s Time Out Of Mind are to be assumed. By the time of Things Have Changed, Dylan - who had survived a life-threatening illness in the meantime - seems to have undergone a great uplift in spirits since the often dark soul-searching of Time Out Of Mind. Suddenly we were hearing a mischievous, giddy and joyously funny Dylan, the like of which we’d not heard for many moons. Things Have Changed’s sprightly tone anticipates the supercharged word games and sly postures of the next year’s Love And Theft. And its tone accurately reflects that of The Wonder Boys itself, which is a kind of comedy of modern disillusionment.

            This new brightness (and lightness) of tone is immediately signalled by the attractive rhythmic shuffle, shaded by almost Latin percussion, which opens the track. For perhaps the first time in his career, and on the cusp of his own seventh decade, Dylan is finally making music you can dance to. With typical insouciance he even refers to this new musical ‘career’: …Gonna take dancing lessons/ Do the jitterbug rag… The voice here is a finely judged, gravelly whisper, which perfectly fits the tone and subject matter of the song, especially in the tiny understated sighs which he uses at various dramatic moments. Despite his professedly disenchanted situation and attitude, Dylan’s narrator seems to be somewhat detached from the events he’s describing. …I've been trying to get as far away from myself as I can… he tells us.

            The song’s lyrics are sharply-honed with many delightfully ironic touches, none more so than in the description of the woman sitting on his lap drinking champagne.  …Got white skin… he purrs …got assassin’s eyes… / I’m staring up into the sapphire-tinted skies… Dylan’s tongue slides around the alliteration, positively wallowing in the delicious contrast in these lines. The narrator appears to be wealthy and ‘well-dressed’, perhaps a kind of ageing roué with a young, gold-digging beauty in tow. …I’m in love with a woman… he confesses later …that don’t even appeal to me… His mind is clearly elsewhere. Despite his wealth and power he is trapped. Unusually for Dylan, the song has a series of middle-eights, helping to lead in to the rather attractively catchy (and almost hummable) chorus. The lines in these sections seem to represent the narrator’s mind wandering off in strange directions. In the first one he pictures himself  …Standing on the gallows with my head in a noose… which may be an ironic depiction of the trap he’s got himself into by following a debauched, unfocused lifestyle. …Any minute now… he breathes in that understated growl …I’m expecting all hell to break loose… , though he hardly sounds like he’s getting himself into a sweat over it.  The ‘singalong’ chorus again indicates a narrator who is barely engaged with the world, suffocated by his own ennui. …People are crazy, times are strange… he tells us, with an air of passive acceptance. But then he proceeds to confess that  I’m locked in tight/ I’m out of range… He is a prisoner, it seems, of his own boredom. He knows he is trapped but cannot be bothered to do anything about it: …I used to care… he sighs …but things have changed…

            The next verse contains the song’s funniest lines. …This place ain’t doin’ me any good.. he muses. …I’m in the wrong town/ I should be in Hollywood He’s hardly gained any sympathy from us so far, and this makes him sound even more comically decadent. It’s as if he’s leaning back on his bar stool, feeling maudlin, expecting us to give him some sympathy when he knows full well he doesn’t deserve it. In his misty-eyed, drunken reverie he seems to be indulging in some bizarre prewar Hollywood fantasy: …Gonna take dancing lessons, do the jitterbug rag/ Ain’t no shortcuts, gonna dress in drag… he declares, as if he’s banging his glass of bourbon down on the bar, expecting some bored waitress to sympathise with him. But then he begins to grow bitter. …Only a fool in here… he tells us ...would think he’s got anything to prove…  In the next middle eight he indulges in rather vague clichés about how life has passed him by: …Lot of water under the bridge, Lot of other stuff too… he says. Then he tips his hat to his imagined audience: …Don’t get up gentlemen… he insists (as if they would!) …I’m only passing through…

            As our hero grows ever more maudlin the song takes a darker turn. Earlier on he had alluded to …waiting on the last train… Now he expands on this apocalyptic hint: …If the Bible is right… he sings …the world will explode… His drunken haze begins to lead him into darker moods and he seems to fear some kind of judgement from on high. Hell, it seems, is just around the corner. …Some things are too hot to touch… he mutters darkly. He begins to wallow in self-pity, confessing hat …I’ve been trying to get as far away from myself as I can… By the next middle eight he seems to have actually fallen right off his barstool. He adopts a tragicomic and rather ridiculous tone: …Feel like falling in love with the first woman I meet/ Putting her in a wheel barrow and wheeling her down the street…  In the last verse he twists his tongue around lines that recall classic country ‘face in the beerglass’ laments: …I hurt easy, I just don't show it/ You can hurt someone and not even know it… The logic of the coup-de-grace line … All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie… is similarly illogical and inebriated. Finally there is a random reference to …Mr. Jinx and Miss Lucy… who we are told …jumped in the lake… The narrator declares that …I’m not that eager to make a mistake… ‘Mr. Jinx’ was a ‘beatnik’ cat in Hanna-Barbera’s late 1950s cartoon Pixie and Dixie. But the narrator himself is, of course, a kind of ‘Mr. Jinx’. His life, he feels, is one long jinx.

            Things Have Changed comments rather obliquely on the character of Grady Tripp in The Wonder Boys. The persona Dylan adopts is, like Tripp, a drunken cynic who laments the death of his own morality With the apparently explicit reference to Dylan’s 1964 The Times They Are A-Changin’ in the chorus, it is tempting to think of him as an emblematic figure of our ‘modern times’. Yet the song is far from being the rantings of a cynical old man. It breathes with wit, with new life. Indeed it winks sardonically at the habit of false nostalgia. There’s actually nothing in the song that says that the narrator speaks from the present day. Maybe he’s in the 50s, or even the 20s, when you might well learn the ‘jitterbug drive’. The narrator is in some ways reminiscent of the Hollywood director Sullivan in Preston Sturges’ brilliantly satirical classic movie Sullivan’s Travels (1941), who attempts to ‘find out how the poor live’ by attempting to become a hobo himself, with disastrous results. Sullivan finds that escaping from Hollywood is no easy matter - for much of the film he continually finds himself landing back there. This ambiguity about where and when songs are set will be a strong feature of both Love and Theft and Modern Times. So Things Have Changed is a kind of manifesto for Dylan’s work of the 2000s, where ‘the future is only a thing of the past’. Freed from the shackles of the despair which he so memorably exorcises in Time Out Of Mind, Dylan puts on his snazzy dress suit and his dancing shoes to face the new millennium with a sly smile, a knowing wink and a twirl of his cane. 

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Hello again. Been very busy but hope to be getting these blogs up more regularly. Will be covering  Waiting On You, Cross The Green Mountain, Tell Ol' Bill, Huck's Tune in the series before going on to do Love And Theft: Track By Track.

As usual I welcome any comments. You can leave them below or write directly to me at chris@chrisgregory.org  

My book WHO COULD ASK FOR MORE: RECLAIMING THE BEATLES is now available HERE
Also BE SEEING YOU: DECODING THE PRISONER is available HERE







 









Saturday, 12 April 2008 15:51:28 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [22]  | 

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