Saturday, 06 March 2010

BORN IN TIME

 


I walk alone through the shakin’ street…

 


        In recent years, in his interviews and in his Theme Time Radio Hour  show, Bob Dylan has professed considerable admiration for ‘crooners’ like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. This may have come as something of a surprise to those who associated Dylan with the deliberate harshness of his early 60s vocal style and the pronounced unsentimentality and emotional detachment in his early love songs like It Ain’t Me Babe, Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right and One Too Many Mornings. Yet, as his radio show and his reminiscences in Chronicles Volume One reveal, Dylan’s tastes have always been highly eclectic. Since the mid-80s, his embrace of mainstream ‘romantic’ tradition in American song has grown to become a more and more prominent feature of his work.  He had flirted with such material before, most notably on the unfairly maligned Self Portrait album in 1970, but his own songs of the 60s and 70s had pretty much all been composed within the framework of folk, country and blues disciplines. By the time of 1985’s Empire Burlesque he was making tentative forays into ‘Great American Songbook’ territory with ballads like I’ll Remember You and Emotionally Yours, both of which were couched in conventional romantic terminology and were structured like ‘professional’ pop songs with middle-eight passages designed as a counterpoint to the songs’ melodies.

          At this point, however, Dylan could be said to be still finding his way with the form. These songs come over like deliberate exercises in writing the kind of songs people did not associate Bob Dylan with. By the late 90s, however, the inclusion of a far more fully realised piece of work like To Make You Feel My Love suggested that Dylan had been able to integrate such material in more credible way into his performing and songwriting repertoire. In songs of the 2000s like Moonlight, Bye And Bye, Beyond The Horizon, When The Deal Goes Down and Life Is Hard he would explore the nuances of such styles in more detail and would find ways of fusing such stylizations with more poetic and experimental lyrical forms. Born In Time, which originally appeared on the Under The Red Sky album in 1990, is positioned somewhere between the earlier and the later material. Its tone is romantic and wistful and it attempts to marry romantic cliché with poetic metaphor. Its effectiveness depends very much on the passion and conviction with which it is performed. The two versions of the song which appear on Tell Tale Signs are drawn from the sessions from the Oh Mercy album. The version on CD3 appears to be an earlier draft, with significantly different lyrics. But both versions are performed more convincingly that the version on Under The Red Sky, where the vocal sounds a little strangled by Don Was’ rather messy production.  It is not surprising that the song was not selected for inclusion on Oh Mercy as its tone and content are out of step with the delicate balance between spiritual despair and transcendent hope that the album sets up. Born In Time is a kind of experiment in romanticism. It juggles a kind of poetic mysticism with romantic cliché in ways that are sometimes quite striking.

          The song seems to be addressed to a lover from the narrator’s (perhaps distant) past. The notion of being ‘born in time’ is an interesting one, given Dylan’s stated ambition to ‘stop time’ in his songs, and the fact that the song seems to be comprised of a series of reminiscences which appear in no particular chronological order.           In the first verse we enter the song’s dream world through the …stardust of a pale blue light… The narrator’s statement that … I think of you in black and white… sets the love affair in some unnamed past decade. The statement that …we were made of dreams… also places the remembered relationship in an apparently more innocent past time.  Then we are plunged into the dream itself. The lines: …. I walk alone through the shakin’ street/ Listenin’ to my heart beat/ In the record breakin’ heat…are perhaps the most evocative in the song, taking us to the heart of what the narrator is feeling. He is ‘shaking’ with the feeling of the memory, overwhelmed by the ‘record breakin’ heat’ of of passion, and all he can hear is the sound of his own heartbeat. The lines have a strongly suggestive poetical and musical resonance which effectively conveys a sense of nostalgic longing and regret. The regret the narrator feels seems to be as much for the fact that the ‘heat’ of his own passion can only now be found in a dream of the past as for the love object herself. The love he is describing is timeless, yet also anchored in a particular time and place.

          The first of the song’s two ‘middle eight’ or ’bridge’ sections follows. There are substantial differences between the lyrics of the two versions here and this entire section was changed again for Under The Red Sky. After the evocative suggestiveness of what has come earlier Dylan seems to be struggling with his attempt to use cliché in an appropriate way. The Disc Three version runs ….You were high, you were low/ You were so easy to know…  which is succeeded by …You were smooth, you were rough/ You were more than enough…  both of which sound rather forced. At least …oh babe, why did I ever leave ya, or grieve ya… which follows, is direct, showing the narrator’s regret in no uncertain terms. This is also an effective contrast to the poetic leap at the beginning of the next verse: … On the rising curve/ Where the ways of nature will test every nerve… a prescient and evocative description of how it feels to commit oneself emotionally in a relationship. This is reinforced by the even more regretful line : I took you close and got what I deserved…  There is a kind of emotional honesty here which is missing in the Under The Red Sky version which features the rather vague and equivocal …You won’t get anything you don’t deserve…

          The second bridge section features the effectively jarring Just when I knew who to thank/ You went blank…  This works as a contrast against the rather odd ….You were snow, you were rain/ You were striped, you were plain… an describe the girl’s changing nature which descends into near-absurdity. In the final verse the references to the …hills of mystery… and the …foggy web of destiny… indeed tend to ‘fog’ the meaning of the song in rather vague metaphor. The song thus flits between effective poetic moments and a sense of uncertainty. The relationship being described arguably needs to be anchored more clearly in a specific time and place to engage the listener. Born In Time thus never really delivers what the intriguing nature of its refrain and the evocative quality of its earlier verses promises us. Dylan is attempting to fuse different modes of expression here, with decidedly mixed results. But the song can be seen as a stepping stone, and arguably an important one, between one mode of expression and another.  None of the three released versions quite manage to realise the potential inherent in its best lines. But in its presentation of these two early versions of the song, Tell Tale Signs further reveals the processes that Dylan was experimenting with in the evolution of the new stylistic modes that came to dominate his work in the late ‘90s and the 2000s.

The subject of the song is not so much the love affair but the memory of the affair, which is now fading, and Dylan seems to be challenging himself to see if he can still feel that ‘record breakin’ heat’. Thus the way the song veers between poetry and cliché is actually quite appropriate. The singer seems to be questioning how valid his own memories are, and in doing so he inevitably swings between poetic detachment and sentimentality. While the young Dylan rejected sentimentality entirely, in both his lyrics and his (deliberately) harsh vocal style, by his late 20s (around the time of Nashville Skyline, when he himself was happily married) he was already beginning to grapple with the fact that feelings of love can in themselves be sentimental. Much of his subsequent treatment of love in song has tried to balance these dynamics. Often, as in the Desire’s heartbreaking confessional Sara or in the inner struggles depicted in much of the introspective material on Time Out Of Mind, he has seemed to be drowning in a kind of sentimental despair. Later, in the songs from his albums of the 2000s, he uses a detached, tongue-in-cheek levity to balance such feelings. Born In Time sits somewhere in between these poles, a song of uncertainty whose sometimes faltering tone questions its own veracity. It is a song in which the narrator tries to convince himself that he really feels something. And we are never quite sure whether these feelings are real or not.

 

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As usual any comments are appreciated, in the box below or you can email me at:



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Saturday, 06 March 2010 21:06:28 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [24]  | 
Tuesday, 12 January 2010

 TELL OL’ BILL



Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
The Tempest, 4. 1


The enemy is at the gates….


        Tell Ol’ Bill is another one of Dylan’s ‘soundtrack songs’, written - like Things Have Changed, Waiting For You  and Cross The Green Mountain -  in order to illustrate the themes of a particular film. But, as with all these songs, Dylan uses these themes as a starting point for exploring wider concerns.  While Things Have Changed twists its midlife-crisis cynicism into a comic masquerade and Cross The Green Mountain transforms the story of a dying soldier in the American Civil War into a series of intense reflections on human conflict, Tell Ol’ Bill turns an individual’s struggle for freedom and justice into a profound meditation on human will power .The song was written for the North Country (dir. Nick Caro, 2005) a drama set in the 1970s in Dylan’s own home territory of the Minnesota Iron Range (as immortalized in his own North Country Blues and Girl Of The North Country) and is a fictionalized account of how a female mine worker and single parent Josey Aimes (played by Charlize Theron) was involved in fighting the first successful action against sexual harassment in the US after being abused and attacked by male co-workers and ignored by a callous management. The film is very much in the tradition of American liberal social realism established by films like Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, To Kill A Mockingbird and Silkwood. The song attempts to get inside the mind of the main character, describing her frustrations at the position she finds herself in and eventually resolving to tackle the problem head-on.

        The version of the song which appears on Tell Tale Signs is different to the one which appeared on the movie soundtrack. Though Dylan’s singing remains gently subdued throughout, the drums in particular are more pronounced, making the song more rhythmic and the whole performance somewhat more passionate. The song seems to have been tried out in a number of different ways, as revealed in a bootleg tape of the sessions (one of the few to have escaped from Dylan’s studio work in the last two decades) during which it seems at different times to be evolving into a slow blues, a country lament and a pained ballad. Despite the musical differences, the lyrics remain virtually the same throughout the twelve different versions on the tape, suggesting that Dylan composed the piece as a poem and then proceeded to set it to music. Both released versions tend to tread something of a middle ground between the more extreme musical forms being played with in the studio. The version on Tell Tale Signs is an impeccable example of Dylan’s modern singing style, full of subtle, querulous phrasing. Dylan inhabits the voice of a modest but brave narrator and conveys a sense of quiet courage without ever falling into over-emotionalism.

        Dylan is careful to pronounce each word clearly here. The song features a carefully structured balance between lyrical imagery and determined emotion. The correlation between the images of the natural world and the narrator’s thoughts are carefully and skillfully built up. While the scene being depicted is undoubtedly cold and harsh: … the rocks are bleak/ the trees are bare/ Iron clouds go floating’ by…. there is a certain magical quality to this harsh North Country landscape, with its …tranquil lakes and streams… and …snowflakes falling in my hair…. which seems to indicate Dylan’s love for and empathy with his home territory. What is most impressive about the use of language here is the expansiveness of its imagery within its disciplined, compressed format. One of the best examples is the opening verse: ….The river whispers in my ear/ I've hardly a penny to my name/ The heavens have never seemed so near/ All my body glows with flame… The narrator seems to be in a kind of trance, with the spirits of nature talking to her. Out here in the cold North Country she feels lifted up, enraptured. The contrast between material poverty and spiritual enrichment is achieved with admirable economy and precision. In the next verse the beautiful and mysterious line …the tempest struggles in the air…  with its immediately contrasting …and to myself alone I sing.. is perhaps the most impressive example of symbolist writing in the song. There are times when Dylan demonstrates an innate feeling for the placement of a particular word and here the use of ‘struggle’ following ‘tempest’ creates a memorable metaphorical resonance. The lone singer, searching into the depths of her soul, is engaged in a kind of tempestuous struggle with herself, trying to face up to the darkness within. The very sound of the words expresses this just as effectively as whatever symbolic meaning they may have.  

        The next verses take us further into this darkness. The narrator searches for …one smilin’ face/ to drive the shadow from my head… She cries …why must you torture me within?.... and rages against the spirits of nature: ….Why must you come down off your high hill?/Throw my fate to the clouds and wind…. Again the language is direct, precise  - a kind of Blakean ‘plain speak’ which is colloquial but simultaneously symbolic. It is as if she has been twisted up herself by the struggling tempest, the wild spirit of the bleak land, which exists both outside and inside her. This spirit which tortures her causes her to have …secret thoughts… which are …hard to bear…  But she is left alone, with … emotions we can never share … One of the key moments in the film occurs when it is revealed that Josey’s child was conceived when she was raped by her teacher and the lines in the next verse You trampled on me as you passed/ Left the coldest kiss upon my brow…  express the emotional aloneness of one who has experienced such an ordeal for withering clarity. Yet from this point onwards, the narrator begins to gather the inner strength she will need for the oncoming struggle. …All my doubts and fears have gone at last… she confesses …I've nothing more to tell you now…  After howling at the wind and the spirits of the air in despair she begins to come to a cold realisation. She now understands that … the enemy is at the gates… From here on, the scenery is transformed. In another remarkable transposition of colloquial and figurative language she contrasts the raging incoherence of the oppressive spirit:  Beneath the thunder-blasted trees/ The words are ringin' off your tongue… with symbolic descriptions of nature which reflect on her new, hard-won determination. …The ground is hard in times like these… she declares. Now she is standing on solid, firm earth. And, even more remarkably …stars are cold, the night is young… contrasting in a single short line an image of her own fortitude with a sly reworking of a common cliché. The stars are cold and so now is her heart and her ‘iron will’ (reflected in the ‘iron clouds’ that pass above her).

        In the final verses her determination to enact revenge grows. Now darkness begins to fall on the landscape, a darkness that is reflected in the corruption she has to face up to:  …The woods are dark, the town is too/ They’ll drag you down, they run the show/ Ain't no tellin' what they'll do.… But she is ready now to face up to these ‘enemies at the gates’. When, in the penultimate verse ‘Old Bill’ arrives, she shows herself to be fully prepared: …Tell him that I'm not alone/ That the hour has come to do or die… She declares that …All the world I would defy… She is ready to take on the elements now, to still the raging torrent that surrounds her. And she stares her enemy directly in the face with a final expression of compassion: ….I look at you now and I sigh/ How could it be any other way… Her enemy may have tried to ‘throw her fate to the clouds and wind’ but she has taken control of her own destiny. Such is Dylan’s skill with language here that he makes his Girl Of The North Country’s ‘struggle with the tempest’ inside and outside her into a profound expression of the triumph of an individual spirit against great adversity. On one level the song is, like so many of Dylan’s most heartfelt works, another exploration of the process of poetic creation itself. The singer here is almost consumed by imagery before he finds the willpower to channel it into focus, as if the poet is attempting to ‘struggle’ with a ‘tempest’ of language that hovers above him in the air, just out of reach. The words express both the savage glory and the terror of the seeker for inspiration. For Dylan this search is, as always, a spiritual one.

        But who is ‘Ol’ Bill’, the apparent subject of the song? ‘Bill’ makes only a fleeting appearance, personifying the narrator’s helper. In fact the lawyer who wins Josey’s case in North Country is called Bill. ‘Ol’ Bill’ is also a stock character who appears in a number of very old Negro folk songs. One from the Georgia islands runs:  …Old Bill the rollin' pin, he had a hog eye and a double chin…  Here ‘Old Bill’  is a policeman.  In England ‘Old Bill’ is also a popular slang term for the police. Actually Dylan seems to have lifted the title line from a traditional song called Tell Old Bill which appeared in Carl Sandburg’s compendium of American folksongs American Songbag, first published in 21927. The song goes …Tell Old Bill when he gets home/Leave them downtown gals alone… At the end of the song Old Bill meets a sorry fate  …They brought ...poor dead Bill - - his toes were a-draggin'... It is typical of the latter-day Dylan to insert such phrases from old songs, although this is the only instance of this practice here. This is a small, playful touch in a lyric which mostly avoids the sometimes complex patterns of reference Dylan frequently uses in his songs of this period (especially on the Modern Times album). The song is relatively free from direct allusions, although its language - using natural imagery as metaphorical representations of inner turmoil - is often reminiscent of Shakespeare’s poetic methodology. The reference to ‘thunder blasted trees’ recalls the ‘blasted heath’ in King Lear and the ‘North Country’ scenario resembles such a devastated wilderness. The centrality of the image of the ‘tempest’ in the song also recalls Shakespeare’s play of the same name, wherein the ‘tempest’ has a similar symbolic significance. If Tell Ol’ Bill can be taken as a song about the struggle poets face with inspiration than who better a ‘helper’ than Ol’ Bill Shakespeare himself?

        As with Cross The Green Mountain, it is fortunate that Tell Ol’ Bill  was rescued from the obscurity of being on the soundtrack album of a relatively little-known film and was placed on Tell Tale Signs. In its own way, it is just as much a major latter-day Dylan work, showcasing many of his most effective and evocative poetic techniques. And like the greatest blues songs, it delves into the darkest recesses of the human heart and comes out fighting defiantly, celebrating nothing less than humanity itself.   

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 As usual, I'd welcome any comments in the box below or you can write to me directly at

chris@chrisgregory.org  

 

More to come soon!

 

 

       







Tuesday, 12 January 2010 02:57:48 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [21]  | 
Sunday, 03 January 2010

RED RIVER SHORE

The frozen smile upon my face fits me like a glove…

And she bore him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have
been a stranger in a strange land. 

Exodus 2:22

There in the tomb stand the dead upright,
But winds come up from the shore:
They shake when the winds roar,
Old bones upon the mountain shake

W.B. Yeats, The Black Tower



Red River Shore was perhaps the major revelation among all the tracks released on Tell Tale Signs. Its ambition and scope rates with the very best of Dylan’s later work. We are presented with  two versions of the song, which are almost identical lyrically. This is not, like a number of the other Time Out Of Mind outtakes, a ‘work in progress’. The version on Disc One is the most impressive, beginning with sparse guitar accompaniment and building gradually with the addition of more drums, bass and atmospheric maracas and (in particular) the accordion which comes to dominate the sound. Dylan’s singing here is breathily tender and restrained, reminiscent of the intimacy of the original ‘New York Sessions’ for Blood On The Tracks. The effect is beautifully matched to the tone of humility that underscores the unfolding narrative, tinged with a sweetly savoured sense of regret. Though Red River Shore is a kind of ‘love song’, its concerns are ultimately far wider and more transcendent. In many ways it is a classic piece of romanticism, which echoes the ‘nature poems’ of Burns, Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth. The girl herself seems more elemental than real, a kind of spirit of nature who may be taken to symbolise the poetic imagination itself. Here Dylan uses an authentically mature voice to create a kind of mystical reflection on the power that memory has on our lives as we grow older.


       There are in fact two major ‘Red Rivers’ in the US, one in the south between Texas and Oklahoma and one in the north between Minnesota and North Dakota. The ‘Red River’ referred to in the famous 1949 Howard Hawks/John Wayne movie is the southern one, whereas one might speculate that the ‘Red River shore’ Dylan refers to here is the one next to his home state of Minnesota. But unlike Mississippi’, he does not seem to be using US geography in any metaphorical way here. The ‘Red River’ seems to be an entirely symbolic location, with the notion of a ‘red river’ also suggesting blood flowing. ‘Red rivers’ also occur in several folk songs. Most well known is the folk/country standard Red River Valley, a song in which a young girl laments that the cowboy she loves will soon have to leave the Valley. This dates from around 1870 and was first popularized in recorded form in Jules Verne Allen’s 1929 version (known as Cowboy Love Song). It has since been recorded by Jimmie Rodgers, Roy Acuff, Gene Autry, Bill Haley, Woody Guthrie, The Sons OfThe Pioneers and many others. Perhaps more relevant is another traditional song which shares the same title as Dylan’s, which was popularized by The Kingston Trio (who, despite their rather ‘sanitised’ approach to folk music, Dylan cites in Chronicles Part One as an early influence). This song contains the lines … She wrote me a letter/ She wrote it so kind… which Dylan uses in Not Dark Yet, another song from Time Out Of Mind. The song is a cowboy ballad in which the sharpshooting hero’s love for the girl who lives on the shore is thwarted by her highly disapproving relatives. Although he kills a total of thirteen of them, their manpower eventually overwhelms him and he has to retreat. Dylan’s narrator does not face such problems, though he comes no closer to ‘getting the girl’. It could be said that both of these songs hover somewhere in the background here, as both deal with unrequited love. Dylan uses the familiar phrase to help evoke the intense sexual and spiritual yearning that characterizes the song.
 

       Red River Shore begins with a collocation of extraordinary imagery: …Some of us turn off the lights and we live/In the moonlight shooting by/Some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark/To be where the angels fly… Dylan sets out his stall here, presenting life as a choice between accepting the chaotic nature of existence and letting it overwhelm us. The implication seems to be that if we want to live blissfully (‘where the angels fly’ ) and fulfill our inner longings, we need to accept the ‘darkness’ which surrounds us and learn to live ‘in the moonlight shooting by’, a highly evocative phrase suggesting that a life lived to its full personal and spiritual potential must embrace a certain kind of ‘darkness’. This is a song about choices, but it is not one in which the narrator necessarily makes the right choice. It is a treatise on infatuation, on entrapment, focused on the narrator’s intense love for an unreachable object. The narrator describes a life spent reaching out for someone who is less a real person than a poetic ideal, perhaps a muse, but one who he never has any real chance of getting close to. As the stately tune progresses, Dylan’s subdued and poignant performance conveys his sense of ineffable regret in every breath.
 

       The narrator tells us that despite the … pretty maids all in a row lined up/Outside my cabin door… he has not been distracted from pursuing his love object. The use of the ‘pretty maids’ line from the nursery rhyme Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary next to the reference to ‘my cabin door’ creates an oddly archaic resonance. ‘My cabin door’ is a direct allusion to the great American mid-nineteenth century songwriter Stephen Foster’s Hard Times (covered by Dylan in 1993 on Good As I Been To You). Dylan’s sparing and suggestive use of archaic terms seems to locate the song somewhere in the Foster’s time, when the log cabin itself became a key symbol of the pioneer spirit - Abraham Lincoln was only one of a number of Presidents who made much of their log cabin origins. Red River Shore is also somewhat reminiscent of the wistfully romantic but mournful tone of a number of Foster’s songs, such as Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair. Like the girl from the Red River Shore, Foster’s Jeannie is a kind of lost dream-lover, who is …borne like a vapor on the sweet summer air…  We also hear that … Now the nodding wild flowers may wither on the shore/ While her gentle fingers will cull them no more… clearly suggesting that Jeannie is dead.  Dylan’s language in this song hints at such an elegiac tone, though ultimately he buries even this assumption in mystery. Foster’s longing for the dead girl is, like that of Edgar Allen Poe in poems like Lenore and Annabel Lee, a stylized and idealized approach which is very characteristic of nineteenth century romanticism and its preoccupation with transcendent death. But despite his apparent immersion in this ‘far away’ world, Dylan constantly jolts us back into everyday reality. He is locked into the romantic illusion of ‘love at first sight’, experiencing a love so powerful that no other love can ever match it. … I knew when I first laid eyes on her… he laments …I could never be free… However, in fact he tells us very little about the girl. Unlike Foster’s Jeannie she seems to have no defining physical characteristics. Yet she has, it seems, something of an acid tongue. After all the narrator’s wooing she advises him, rather bluntly, to …go home and lead a quiet life… Then we hear that his dream of her …dried up a long time ago… He piles on the romantic disillusionment, telling us he’s living under a ‘cloak of misery’, that he can’t ‘escape from her memory’ and that …the frozen smile upon my face fits me like a glove… The awkwardness of the metaphor is another one of the song’s odd lyrical twists. Here he seems to suggest that he willingly submits to the state of paralysis that his memory has locked him into.
 

       As the song progresses we still learn nothing significant about the girl herself. The singer seems more concerned with meditating upon his own separation from his muse. Alternating between florid poesy and grim realism he tells us he’s …trapped in the fires of time… and …living in the shadows of a fading past… but admits he …never did know the score… and has tried to …stay out of a life of crime… He seems to simultaneously far away from the Red River Shore and standing at its edge. …I’m a stranger here in a strange land… he declares …But I know I’ve stayed here before…. and he dreams of spending the night here ‘a thousand nights ago’ with the girl. He seems to be willingly trapped in a romantic fantasy, in love with a past image of himself and unwilling to free himself from it. But then the narrative takes some very unexpected turns. He tells us he went back to see the girl once to ‘straighten it out’ but that all the people he talked to had no memory of her. Increasingly it seems as if she may have been a mere projection. In the final lines he concludes that … Sometimes I think nobody ever saw me here at all/ 'Cept the girl from the red river shore… So any solidity his past had had has dissolved. The main theme of the song seems to be not romantic love but the way we can hold onto romantic illusions of the past which may stifle our creativity in the present. This tension lies behind the mostly tortured love songs that make up Time Out Of Mind, depicting the process of an artist trying to free himself from his past.
    But there is one more shadow from the past that the singer apparently has to exorcise. In the song’s oddest twist of all we are presented, in weirdly detached language, with what appears to be a reference to Jesus: …I've heard about a guy who lived a long time ago/ A man full of sorrow and strife/ That if someone around him died and was dead/He knew how to bring him on back to life… This may in fact be a biblical allusion not to Jesus but to the prophecy of the coming messiah in Isiah 53:3: 


He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.


Yet this is in no way any kind of conventional ‘religious revelation’. The description is strangely offhand and the expression very strange, especially the line ‘died and was dead’. It’s as if the singer has adopted some colloquial ‘uneducated’ tone to refer to ‘this guy’. And the lines remain ominously mysterious. Does the singer want ‘the guy’ to bring ‘the girl’ back to life? Or is he merely grasping at straws? The way ‘the guy’ is introduced and then dismissed in no way indicates any leap of faith. All we are left with in the end is enigma. Did he really know the girl at all? Was any of it real? Can we really trust our memories and should we let romantic illusions overcome us? Can we bring them back to life? The singer has obviously been inspired by ‘the girl’. She seems to have always been his muse. But whenever he tries to conjure her up she slips through his fingers, like a ghost. A ghost of a memory….  In Time Out Of Mind  and successive albums Dylan confronts his past, cramming his songs with snippets of what seem like half remembered songs, echoes of what he will later refer to as .. long dead souls from their crumblin’ tombs… evoking past scenes through the prism of the present.  The implication seems to be that only be accepting the truth of the past can we be free from it. So we can avoid …scaring ourselves to death in the dark… and live in the fullness of the present moment, within …the moonlight shooting by…

   





Sunday, 03 January 2010 17:35:00 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [12]  | 
Tuesday, 29 December 2009
MODERN TIMES OUTTAKES:
SOMEDAY BABY  AND  AIN’T TALKIN’


Sometimes like women or unwedded maids
Shadowing more beauty in their airy brows
Than have the white breasts of The Queen Of Love…
Christopher Marlowe, Dr. Faustus



Little by little, bit by bit
Every day I'm becoming more of a hypocrite…




      The main story which Tell Tale Signs tells is that of Bob Dylan’s reinvention in the 1990s, with particular emphasis on the Time Out Of Mind period, but there are also a couple of more recent studio outtakes which constitute significant variations on the originally released versions. In what is presumably an earlier take of Someday Baby, the tone of the vocal and musical performance is slightly harsher and harder edged than the one on Modern Times.  The rhythm here is tighter, less relaxed and the vocal more uncertain and jumpy. While the message of self-mocking disillusionment with the love object remains basically the same, the singer here sounds rather more bitter and vulnerable. Or at least, he’s trying to fool us into thinking he feels like that… The lyrics, which differ substantially, are also somewhat more direct and self-critical in tone, and less allusive. The difference between the two versions illustrates how Dylan can use two types of blues expression - raw emotion and detached reflection - to create varying modes of expression for the same song. Whereas in the final version the singer appears to have transcended the rough treatment he had received from his lover, here he still harbours dark thoughts of disposing of her. …Gonna blow out your mind, and make you pure… he mutters… I've taken about as much of this as I can endure… But the performance is not really venomous enough for us to believe that (unlike the cold hearted narrator of Robert Johnson’s 20/20 Blues which Dylan covers on Disc Two) he really means this. So we are left with an impression of someone wounded into inaction, using the song to allow his revenge fantasies a safe escape route.
The singer’s technique in addressing the girl is a kind of deliberate self-abasement, a pretence that he is not really asking for her pity. Early on in this version he casts himself deliberately into self-abjection: …Little by little, bit by bit… he begins, the ‘babyish’ words suggesting a kind of mock timidity …I’m becoming more of a hypocrite…  Then we hear how she has made him suffer …You made me eat/ A ton of dust….  he complains. …You're potentially dangerous, and not worthy of trust… which follows, sounds a little awkward and perhaps a little too analytical for this kind of song. Maybe that is the point, though. The narrator here actually sounds rather scared of his lover. When he sings the similarly awkward …When I heard you was cold, I bought you a coat and hat/ I think you must have forgotten about that… he really sounds rather pathetically forlorn. Playing the martyr, he tells her he will ‘turn the other cheek’ to her insults. So that when he threatens he’ll ‘wring her neck’ this seems entirely unconvincing. By the time he tells her that …if all else fails, I’ll make it a matter of self-respect… he’s really squirming. By now the girl has probably turned away haughtily, not impressed by what she sees as a rather pathetically inadequate display of bravado.
        In many ways the Tell Tale Signs version of the song is more teasingly ambiguously that the smoother Modern Times take. Dylan inhabits the song a little more, mainly by exaggerating the ‘forsaken lover’ persona. The recording is driven by Tony Garnier’s more pronounced throbbing bass line, against which Dylan’s voice is slightly more cracked and plaintive. Maybe this version did not quite gell with the sense of restrained control that he is closer to on the finished album. The same can be said, perhaps, for the alternate version on Disc Two of the apocalyptic Ain’t Talkin’ , which on Modern Times is a slow-building rumination with broodingly violent overtones. Here the track is shorter, punchier – with a faster, more pronounced rhythmic pulse which suggests a mood of panic and despair rather than the grim resignation of the final version. The almost spoken vocals strain against the compelling heartbeat that drives the song on. The lyrics begin to diverge in the middle of the song. As with Someday Baby the tone is less accepting of fate, more desperate. And in this less controlled version of the song, there is no time to lose : … I've got no time for idle conversation… the singer tells us ….I need to find a doctor in this town…  Here the narrator seems careworn, so stressed he has become ill. …I’m all worn out with public service, I’m beginning to crack… There is none of the steely determination which prevails in the climax to the Modern Times track. …I'm gonna throw myself upon your loving breast… he wails, either to his lover or his savior (though there is much less explicitly ‘religious’ imagery here.
      In the most remarkable verse of the Tell Tale Signs version the narrator is cowed by a vision before which he can only tremble. Here the ‘mystic garden’ is bathed in bright autumnal light and illuminated by resonant, allusive symbolism. The faster rhythm and pronounced alliteration emphasizes the singer’s terror: …It's the first new day of a grand and a glorious Autumn/ The Queen of Love is coming across the grass … In this version he bows down before this Amazonian figure, obviously a beautiful and very powerful woman …None dare call her anything but ‘Madam’/ No one flirts with her or even makes a pass… he tells us in awe. This vision seems to be the ‘main event’ of the song at this point.  Here he confronts what appears to be the source of his distress. The Queen Of Love (Virgil’s name for Venus in The Aeneid) has him conquered. He kneels at her feet, bowed into submission. In the next variation on the chorus we see him …standing outside the Gates of Wrath… The last phrase is a direct reference to William Blake’s poem Daybreak, which runs: …To find the western path/Right through the Gates of Wrath/ I urge my way…  Blake’s poem presents a vision earthly of peace and reconciliation but Dylan’s narrator he stands ‘outside’ those gates. He is excluded from redemption. In a lovely ironic touch we hear that instead of entering the gates he has to …take a little trip along the primrose path…  Here the allusion is to Hamlet (1:3) where Ophelia, challenged by her brother Laertes over her attraction to Hamlet, makes a sarcastic aside referring to Laertes’ own dalliances: …Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads… she says, scornfully. Dylan’s hero, like Shakespeare’s has been driven half mad by love. But he has to follow that ‘primrose path’ to whatever part of the ‘mystic garden’ it leads.
        It is perhaps a pity that we lose this verse in the Modern Times version of the song, but there Dylan takes Ain’t Talkin’ in a rather different direction. Here the apocalyptic violence of that version is only hinted at. This version ends with a repetition of the song’s first lines, bringing us back full circle, followed by the enigmatic …Ain’t talkin’ /just walkin’/ You ride ‘em high and down you go….  Along with the earlier reference to …all rails leading to the west… this seems to suggest more of a frontier/cowboy scenario than the final version. The imagery here points towards a mythic past and the song seems to be more focused on the idea of the ‘mystic garden’ as a kind of Edenic vision of ‘frontier America’. Dylan’s ‘mystic traveller’ here is still ruthless, still ready to ‘slaughter his enemies’, but here he rides off into the sunset in the time-honoured way, following that ‘primrose path’ wherever it will lead.


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Hi there again.. it's been some time since the last one of these... meanwhile Bob has brought out two more albums, so I've got a lot of catching up to do! So watch this space!

As usual I'd welcome any comments in the box below or you can write directly to me
at chris@chrisgregory.org   









Tuesday, 29 December 2009 00:04:56 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [343]  | 
Thursday, 19 March 2009
                         DIGNITY


                                       …Soul of a nation is under the knife…



 

            Dignity, like Series Of Dreams and God Knows, was originally written and recorded for Oh Mercy. It was eventually released in remixed form as a single some five years later and also appeared on the MTV Unplugged album in 1996. Tell Tale Signs features two radically different versions of the song from the Oh Mercy sessions. The song has also been performed live on many occasions, with a number of lyrical variations. In Chronicles Volume One Dylan describes how all the attempts at recording the song for Oh Mercy, including an evening spent with a local Cajun band, ended in apparent failure. But by looking at the different versions of the song we can trace a different story. What the various versions of the song have in common is their wild juxtaposition of images. In searching for such an indistinct inner quality we are taken on a mad ride through another ‘series of dreams’. The singer is a kind of Don Quixote figure, rushing madly at disappearing windmills and inviting us to ride, like Sancho Panza, at his side.

          Speaking of knights on quests, the first released version of the song brings to mind Edgar Allan Poe’s poem El Dorado, itself constructed like a song, and written very much in the clipped, nuanced style Dylan adopts on Oh Mercy. One can easily imagine Dylan himself singing these words in his nasal style, stretching out the syllables for effect, and with Lanois’ distinctive atmospherics in the background:

 

Gaily bedight,
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.

But he grew old
This knight so bold
And o'er his heart a shadow
Fell as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.

And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow
"Shadow," said he,
"Where can it be
This land of Eldorado?"

"Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,"
The shade replied
"If you seek for Eldorado!"

            The point of the poem is that - as with the search for the Holy Grail - it is the quest itself which is the important thing. Indeed, the quest is Eldorado. So it is, perhaps, with the quest for Dignity. That’s ‘Dignity’ with a capital ‘D’. The poetic technique utilised here - that of personification - is one which Dylan has used very rarely.  In the originally released version we are presented with a parade of archetypal characters, identified as ‘fat man’, ‘thin man’, ‘hollow man’ ‘wise man’, ‘blind man’ ‘sick man’ and finally ‘Englishman’, all of whom are presented in the present tense engaged in various activities connected with finding some kind of meaning in their lives. These moments of potential revelation pass by as if we are looking out of a moving car window as Dylan follows the jaunty tune. There is little emotional involvement in his voice. This is a picaresque travelogue. We go to ‘the land of the midnight sun’ (Finland, perhaps?), we meet someone called Mary Lou who Said she could get killed if she told me what she knew/About Dignity… and later the mysterious’ Prince Philip at the home of the blues’, who appears to be some kind of ‘super grass’ who Said he'd give me information if his name wasn't used/He wanted money up front, said he was abused/By dignity…. Dignity, it seems, is a secret, an unknowable condition which you will search ‘every masterpiece of literature’ for in vain. Dignity is an enigmatic and playful song, yet it has a personal resonance. Perhaps its most telling lines come in the penultimate verse: … Someone showed me a picture and I just laughed/ Dignity never been photographed…  a rather cynical aside from one who has been photographed so many times since the start of his career and perhaps a veiled comment on the difficulty of maintaining artistic credibility when one is a famous celebrity.  The narrator never finds what he is looking for. What he seeks is a chimera, an Eldorado without a name.

          The Oh Mercy outtake version of Dignity which appears on Disc Two of Tell Tale Signs is heavily rewritten, its music reduced to a simple repetitive guitar riff. Dylan still plays the role of the confused ingénue. The characters have been jumbled up. ‘Prince Philip’ now meets ‘Mary Lou’. A conversation between ‘Don Juan’ and ‘Don Miguel’ outside the Gates of Hell is recounted. Here Dignity is quite explicitly feminised. She is …a woman that knows/ a woman unspoiled/ a woman that’s light/ a woman that bleeds… The imagery is even more bizarre and confusing than in the released version. There are a few remarkable poetic snippets, especially in the evocative lines …Cities in a mess of jackhammer beats/ Buses roll by with burned-out seats/ A child's eyes look through the creeping streets/For dignity…  But despite the dark undertones of this, Dylan still delivers the lines blithely. Towards the end it’s made quite explicit that ….Dignity got no starting-point/   No beginning, no middle, no end…  The final verse leaves us stranded with no definite answers …Looking at a glass that's half-filled/ Looking at a dream that's just been killed…

Perhaps the reason Dylan never originally released this song is that the appropriate combination of words and music for the song proved as elusive as the search for ‘Dignity’ itself.  The search for ‘Dignity’ is in many ways the quest which Dylan set himself in the 1990s. He came to fame as a precocious young man, howling bittersweet poems at the world. Later he sought solace in love, in religion, and in what his ubiquitous concert intro calls …a haze of substance abuse…  By the late 1980s his loss of ‘Dignity’ was most eloquently demonstrated by his performance as the burnt out rock star Billy Parker in Hearts of Fire, a dreadful mess of a movie featuring two new original Dylan compositions, Had A Dream About You Baby and Night After Night, which were almost excruciatingly banal. He was playing a part, right? Well, maybe… It was not long after Hearts of Fire that, as Dylan later claimed, he experienced his ‘Determined to Stand’ epiphany which led to the Never Ending Tour and his eventual transformation into his current ‘wicked old man’ persona. The dilemma he was facing in the late 80s was how to reinvent himself, how to remake his art, as a much older person, in late middle age. Achieving the kind of ‘Dignity’ which was so clearly missing in his embarrassing attempts at 80s production values on Empire Burlesque and on the vacuous songs like Knocked out Loaded’s Got My Mind Made Up or Down In The Groove’s Ugliest Girl In The World became an absolute necessity. And so, on Oh Mercy, he began this process. Yet both the eventually released version and the version of Disc Two of Tell Tale Signs suggest a lack of resolution and of real emotional engagement. ‘Dignity’ is occasionally glimpsed, but never found. Of course, that in a way is the point of the song. Yet there is a sense in which Dylan never quite seems to take the song seriously. In live performances in 1985 and 2000 he shuffles the verses around as if they are interchangeable, which perhaps they are. The song is mildly engaging, a kind of clever intellectual game, but it is rarely revelatory or in any way moving.

The ‘piano demo’ version of Dignity on Disc One of Tell Tale Signs is, however, a very different matter. As shockingly stark as the versions of Mississippi and Most Of The Time which precede it, here the song is stripped down to its essence. Whereas in the other versions it seems to meander happily, here it is sharply focused and performed with a raw, tortured emotional edge. The bouncy riff is absent, replaced by Dylan’s stabbing solo piano which perfectly complements the tone of the performance. Here the song has a clear structure, rising to a crescendo of bitter irony. The journey being depicted is scary, intense - a voyage into inner pain in search of inspiration, a graphic description of the struggle of the artist’s creative soul to come into being. Dylan’s enunciation of the lyrics is precisely honed - he is fully engaged with the pain he is feeling.  Here his vocal performance, with its strange dips and hoarse expression, prefigures the ‘new voice’ he would begin to adopt on the Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong ‘return to roots’ albums of the mid-90s. This version is, just like its predecessors on the album’s track list, ‘merely’ a first take, a ‘demo’ version of the song. But it is here, rather than on subsequent versions in the studio or live, that he really nails the song.

And he really nails it. Here there is a real effort to place discordant emphasis on certain words. In the first verse his voice jerks and falls at the mention of the three ‘men’: ‘fat’, ‘thin’ and ‘hollow’. The piano has an eerie, gospelly quality which is matched by the extraordinary vocal.  …Wise man looking in a blade of grass’ … he intones deeply. Then before the next line there is an odd semi-stutter …Er… young man looking in the shadows that pass… as if he is ‘testifying’, letting out guttural shrieks involuntarily. The first five verses follow the lines of the released version, but it is in the later (presumably later rejected) verses that we really get to the meat of the song. The ‘stranger’ in verse six stares down into the light/From a platinum window in the Mexican night…  Suddenly the song has a location, somewhere hot and sticky and drenched in Catholic guilt. The stranger is engaged in Searching every blood sucking thing inside/ for dignity… These lines give the descent into the land ‘where the vultures feed’ far more resonance than when the same lines appear in the ‘original’ version. This search for Dignity is no search for Eldorado. The singer has no hope of paradise. He has opened the gates of hell. Dylan’s acidic pronounciation of the killer line in the last verse …. Soul of a nation is under the knife… universalises the singer’s predicament. We then get another piece of personification as the Grim Reaper himself appears Death is standing in the doorway of life…  The irony is grim and unmistakeable. There is a heavy, violent threat hanging in the air, a sense of extreme existential despair, now vividly contrasted in the final lines with domestic violence … In the next room a man fighting with his wife/ over Dignity…  Then the song abruptly peters out, as if the singer’s sustained drawn breath (which began with his stuttering testifying in verse two) has finally evaporated. The Dignity he has found is a cruel illusion and its exposure has opened up a spiritual void. Thus this version of Dignity dramatises the pain involved in the loss of religious faith which Oh Mercy songs like What Good Am I?, Ring Them Bells and What Was It You Wanted imply, no more so than in the despairing lines which here are thrown into the sharpest relief Heard the tongues of angels and the tongues of men/ It all sounded no different to me…

The mood of this early, supposedly ‘unfinished’ yet devastating powerful version of Dignity is less reminiscent of Poe’s idyllic quest than T.S. Eliot’s bleakly modernist view of the ‘meaninglessness’ of human existence in the first verse of perhaps his most despairing work:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Dylan’s own ‘hollow man’ appears in the first verse of Dignity , but really all the characters in this version of the song are hollow men. As such they are projections of the singer himself, whose search for the chimerical ‘Dignity’ has become a futile search for meaning in the humid atmosphere of a symbolic desert landscape. His faith has evaporated and he has, as yet, found nothing to replace it. Later Dylan will take as his touchstone the foundations of the cracked voices of singers like Dock Boggs, Hank Williams and Ralph and Carter Stanley. He will take from these men the foundations of a new kind of ‘faith’ from which will flow a new kind of inspiration. But here, it sounds like he has downed a bottle of tequila and has smashed it against a wall. As he stares out of that ‘platinum window in the Mexican night’  his own soul is naked, exposed and ‘under the knife’. And finally, in reaching down into his inner depths and dredging out his true feelings, he has surrendered all artifice and pretence. It is the only way he can hope to find Dignity.

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Any comments always appreciated - use box below or send  to

                           chris@chrisgregory.org   






Thursday, 19 March 2009 15:35:45 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [7]  | 
Friday, 13 March 2009

 

                                      MOST OF THE TIME

 

   I don't cheat on myself, I don't run and hide,
   Hide from the feelings, that are buried inside...

 

    

       The ‘Drawn Blank Series’, the exhibition of Bob Dylan’s paintings currently showing at Edinburgh’s City Art Centre, provides a valuable insight into Dylan’s creative and imaginative processes. The paintings are based on a series of drawings Dylan completed in the late 80s and early 90s. In what the exhibition catalogue describes as ‘an intense burst of creativity in 2007’ Dylan began applying paint to blown-up versions of these black and white, impressionistic images of scenes he’d experienced or imagined in the early stages of his Never Ending Tour.  Many of the drawings (like ‘Train Tracks’ above) are presented in their illuminated form in a series of different versions. The effect of the addition of colour is akin to his ‘going electric’ with his music, illuminating the harsh outlines he has drawn and creating a means by which his basic template can be the subject of endless variation. This is a similar process to the one being enacted on Tell Tale Signs, wherein we get an intimate glimpse into the evolution of Dylan’s songs. Tell Tale Signs makes the ‘secret’ that Dylan bootleg collectors have pursued from the legendary Great White Wonder onwards public - namely, that there really is no definitive ‘final’ version of any Dylan song. Sometimes what are arguably the most memorable versions of Dylan’s songs may only exist on the ‘cutting room floor’ of his recording studio. Just as the three versions of Mississippi featured here demonstrate three different moods and types of emphasis, so the three versions of Train Tracks take us from blazing desert sunshine to the vibrancy of spring to the darkening storms of late summer.


The version of Most Of The Time which follows Mississippi on Disc One of Tell Tale Signs is perhaps the album’s most startling surprise variation on one of his existing ‘templates’. A solo guitar and harmonica take with a style highly reminiscent of the early Blood On The Tracks sessions, it sounds utterly different to the familiar Oh Mercy version, with its swampy, spooky background ambience deriving from Daniel Lanois’ trademark production traits. The version of Disc Three of Tell Tale Signs is quite close to the Oh Mercy version, though it sounds a little less ‘produced’. The lyrics are identical to the earlier-released version though the instrumentation is more muted, and more emphasis is placed on the vocal. Most Of The Time is an exercise in irony and rueful self-deprecation from an artist engaged in the severe self-analysis that permeates the album (which could well have taken its title from the self-explicit song What Good Am I?  In each verse the singer enunciates a long list of his own positive traits, which the repetition of the title line at the end of each verse immediately deflates. We soon realise that the singer has been deserted by his lover and is conducting a supposedly defiant internal dialogue. … I don’t even notice she’s gone… he tells us.  … I don’t think about her… and, more graphically, …I don’t even remember what her lips felt like on mine…  In the original version Dylan sounds tight lipped, with a clear edge of bitterness. He delivers the lines sardonically, barely letting those constrained emotions out. The performance is a kind of dark study, with the narrator apparently drowning in self-delusion. Lanois uses muted bass and drum patterns with swirling, heavily treated guitar sounds to emphasise the singer’s predicament.  The overall effect is somewhat dreamlike, as if the narrator is both inside and outside the action. The prevailing mood is a kind of reflective gloom. Written at a time when Dylan was struggling for inspiration (on his last album Down In The Groove he had produced no new lyrics whatever), the song displays the mood of an artist struggling with a muse whom he fears may well have deserted him ‘most of the time’. The ease in creativity he once had has gone. He is bent in contemplation, hoping for the rare moments of clarity to come.


The ‘new’ version on Disc One has a very different ambience. In spirit if not in form, that same ambience is often found in the work of  blues singers like Sleepy John Estes, Blind Willie Johnson and the Mississippi Sheiks, who describe the hard times they experience with a light touch which lifts the listener onto a different plane. In what was presumably a ‘demo’ version Dylan presented to Lanois before the song was rerecorded and treated, this version has the spirited intensity of Dylan’s best solo work.  The breezy harmonica in between the verses adds to the tone of optimistic resilience which makes the song a description of a defiant struggle rather than a glum wallow in despair. So when Dylan sings … I can handle whatever I stumble upon.. we really believe him.  In this version the self-reassuring doubt in the lyric works against the singer’s tone.  It is a similar effect to the Blood On The Tracks songs like You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go and Buckets Of Rain, taking us on a kind of emotional roller coaster which we somehow feel we may fall off at any moment. The singer maintains a delicate balance between prevailing optimism and underlying despair.

As with most of the Oh Mercy material the language is spare, terse, lacking in obviously ‘poetic’ imagery. The major lyrical difference from the recorded version comes in the second verse, where instead of the resignation of …it’s well understood… I wouldn’t change it if I could… we get the more pithy …I’m cool underneath… I can keep it right between my teeth… (a neat reference, perhaps, to the harmonica which does not feature on the Oh Mercy version. The self-analytical heart of the song comes in the third verse, which begins with the skewed self mockery of …most of the time/my head is on straight… (after which the retort of …I’m strong enough not to hate…is a little disappointing). In the Oh Mercy version the verse contains the song’s most remarkably ‘twisted’ couplet …I don’t build up illusion ‘till it makes me sick/ I ain’t afraid of confusion no matter how thick…  Here we get the far lighter and more positive…I got enough faith and I got enough strength/I keep it all away, way beyond arm's length…

The fourth verse is a kind of bridge, varying the rhyme scheme and striking a note of reticence. The singer  begins to express doubts about whether his encounter with the unnamed lover even took place: …Most of the time/I can't even be sure/If she was ever with me/Or if I was with her…  It is a sentiment that will be echoed again in Red River Shore, which takes on the same themes in a deeper, more tragic manner. Most Of The Time  is an almost ‘textbook’ example of one of Dylan’s ‘anti-love’ songs, a tradition that goes back to Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right , It Ain’t Me, Babe and Mama You Been On My Mind. Here for a moment the singer questions even the validity of his own feelings. In the final verse he admits to being …halfways content…. before building up his bravado in the final verse: …I don’t cheat on myself /I don’t run and hide/ Hide from the feelings/ That are buried inside / I don’t compromise or pretend… And finally, with apparently complete defiance: … I don’t even care if I ever see her again… Of course, by now we hardly believe him and the final equivocation of the last repetition of the title phrase demolishes all this huffing and puffing very neatly.

Most Of The Time is a song of psychological self-examination. As many great blues songs do, it adopts the stance of a jilted lover to explorer deeper inner themes. The singer appears to be reassuring his audience but we soon realise that he is only reassuring himself. The real subject of the song - as of so much of Oh Mercy - is Dylan’s own inner spiritual turmoil, his struggles with what in Street Legal’s Where Are You Tonight he called …my twin/the enemy within… To Dylan, spirituality and creative inspiration are inseparable. Only by truly facing up to this ‘enemy within’ - manifested as a lack of inspiration - can he overcome it.

The unexpected revelation of the Disc One performance of the song (it was unknown on the bootleg circuit before the album’s release) also raises the question as to whether Dylan was wise to accept the ‘production values’ foisted upon him by Lanois in Oh Mercy. In Chronicles Part One Dylan devotes a whole chapter to the recording of the album, relating how previous to making the album he had not written for some time, but then found himself pouring out the songs that later appeared on it. He seems to arrived at Lanois’ home studio in New Orleans uncertain whether the songs he had written were really worthwhile or not. Chronicles also hints at the tensions between artist and producer over the type of sound they were striving for. It seems that at the time Dylan felt so lacking in confidence that he felt he needed ‘producing’ (He claims that Bono had recommended Lanois to him one night when they were demolishing ‘a crate of Guinness)’. Yet the strength and originality and the brave self-searching nature of the Oh Mercy songs shows that Dylan’s fears of his own creative death were totally unfounded. Dylan brought back Lanois for Time Out Of Mind in 1997 (though on the latter album Lanois’ trademark production sound is considerably less pronounced) but all subsequent recordings he has produced himself (under the mischievous pseudonymn of ‘Jack Frost’). Much of Tell Tale Signs presents ‘de-Lanoisised’ versions of the material from these two albums, and it is tantalising to imagine what Oh Mercy would have sounded like if Dylan had recorded it as a solo acoustic album (as he later did with the ‘roots’ albums Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong). Here, on what may well have been the first recorded version of the song, he nails its tone of wavering emotions perfectly, with a masterful example of what his great supporter Allen Ginsberg referred to as his ‘breath control’.

 

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For more on the Dylan exhibition check out this page


Check out some really great writing on Dylan by Lawrence J. Epstein here

 

 An unsual perspective on Dylan and other stuff here  



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Friday, 13 March 2009 01:08:41 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [6]  | 
Sunday, 22 February 2009


In the first verse Dylan begins with a simple statement of his intention to pursue his faith in his muse, combined with clear intimations of mortality which seem to motivate him. From the beginning the use of the pronoun 'we' involves the listener intimately in this process. ...Every step of the way, we walk the line... he sings, echoing Johnny Cash's I Walk The Line, that powerful statement of the intention to remain faithful which is so pronounced in its intensity to be 'true' that we begin to doubt whether the singer can truly remain on this path. The effect here is similar, especially as we are instantly cast into the arena of self-doubt: ...your days are numbered/And so are mine.... This line, with its admission of the effect of the ageing process, echoes Dylan's own ...every hair is numbered/ like every grain of sand... , with its fatalistic overtones. The next few, wonderfully compressed, lines add to the effect - the singer is telling us that we are trapped by fate, our spirits confined by the constraints of time and age: ...Time is piling up/We struggle and we scrape/All boxed in/Nowhere to escape... These lines eloquently express what so many people feel when they reach middle age. Our past histories 'pile up' on us, creating a kind of prison of the mind for ourselves. The line 'struggle and scrape' uses the 's' alliteration that recurs throughout the song, most notably in the 'hissing' sound of the title word itself. The next lines begin to explore the classic blues dichotomy between city and countryside, which here takes on a symbolic dimension. The city is seen as a 'jungle' in which both singer and audience are trapped, continually trying to escape from. The 'country' which the singer was 'raised' seems in comparison to be a place of freedom, of inspiration and the singer tells us, in a wonderfully resonant phrase (again using the 's' alliteration) that his problems have come from him becoming trapped in the 'city': ...I've been in trouble since I set my suitcase down...

The nature of the spiritual and inspirational crisis that Dylan describes is deepened in the next lines, which again resonate powerfully with some of his own previous lyrics: ..Ain't got nothin' for you/ Had nothin' before/ Don't even have anything for myself anymore... Again the expression is clipped, terse, and very world-weary. In Like A Rolling Stone the cry of ...When you ain't got nothin', You got nothin' to lose... had been triumphant, symbolising how young people were shaking off the shackles of older kinds of morality. In contrast, in the later Too Much Of Nothing Dylan warns of the dangers of throwing off received wisdom, suggesting that such actions lead to...the waters of oblivion....

Here Dylan seems - as he will suggest in more detail later in the song - that he is drowning in those waters. The next lines intensify this effect – sliding from the poetic into the colloquial with a resigned grace: ...Sky full of fire/pain falling down... is another skilfully compressed couplet. It is 'pain' that is 'falling down' from the sky, not 'rain'- though of course, the sky itself is on fire. The singer's suppressed, fiery anger turns into the cynicism of ...There's nothing you can sell me/I'll see you around... the cursory brush-off of 'I'll see you around' suggesting that he is trapped in an inspirational void. This sense of a lack of inspiration is made explicit in the following ...My powers of expression and thoughts so sublime/ Could never do you justice/ In reason or rhyme... Here the singer decries his own poetic abilities before leading us into the first refrain of ...Only one thing I did wrong/ Stayed in Mississippi a day too long... Clearly 'Mississippi' is the place where he feels trapped. The suggestion seems to be that his inspirational crisis has been caused by hesitancy, a fear of 'moving on' from one 'state' to another, perhaps in this case from youth to middle age, or from one mindset to another. In any case, a great 'rolling river' seems to yawn between the narrator and the freedom to be inspired that he so desires. Here the 'state of Mississippi' symbolises 'the state of the blues' that the singer finds himself in. The Mississippi Delta is generally referred to as 'the cradle of the blues'. So the singer regrets that he has let himself 'drown in his own tears' for just a little too long.

In the second verse the singer seems to fade away from us, as if he is a kind of ghost. Again symbolism is contrasted with rather cynically colloquial phrases. We begin with some quintessential blues imagery indicating the singer's mind set: ...The devil's in the alley/ Mule's in the stall... he mutters, before further indicating his world-weariness: ...Say anything you wanna/ I have heard it all... He seems distracted now, making a few mysterious references to wishing he was ...in Rosie's bed... He tells us he feels like an invisble 'stranger' and sounds lost, dejected... So many things we never may undo... and, rather pitifully, ...you say you're sorry, I'm sorry too... He seems lost in a kind of existential despair. ...I need something strong... he darkly hints ...to distract my mind... hinting at some potential plunge into 'substance abuse'. He declares that he was guided towards the subject of the song by some cosmic or heavenly force, stating that ...I got here following that Southern Star/ I crossed that river just to be where you are... In Version One, Dylan performs this verse with a kind of resigned your somehow courageous tone, making it perhaps the most moving section of the performance. This is the blues in all its nakedness, a soul crying out in the wilderness. The singer has followed his muse across the wide river and now he seems stranded, looking back regretfully on the past mistakes.

Yet as Dylan has always known, the true magic of the blues lies in the way it can posit hope through adversity. In the song's climactic final verse he depicts himself as broken, yet strangely carefree. He is still 'stuck in Mississippi' and, having absorbed the pain fully, he has plumbed the deepest emotional depths. Here he graphically depicts the feeling of being 'beyond pain', when the soul has suffered so much that nothing else can touch it or make things worse. The metaphor he follows here is that of being drowned in this pain, as if he has reached that point of near-death semi blissfulness where the pain has finally begun to ebb away. Employing more alliteration he memorably begins: ...My ship's been split to splinters/ I'm sinking fast... He tells us he's sunk into a kind of timeless void. ….I'm drowning in the poison/ Got no future, got no past.... And now, as the waters of the great river overcome him, his transcendence begins. The pain is numbed. He feels calm, reflective. ...My heart is not weary... he whispers, ...it's light and it's free... And, neatly completing the nautical analogy: ...I got nothing but affection for those who sail with me... In this transcendent moment the narrator's 'heavy' self pity and anguish is replaced by 'light' compassion. He surveys the frantic stressfulness of modern life from a distance of calm detachment: ... Everybody's movin if they ain't already there/ Everybody's got to move somewhere.... Ceasing to struggle, he begins to float to the surface. Now he reaches out his hand, to his lover or to his audience: ...Stick with me, baby/ Stick with me anyhow... Then, in another dramatically ironic juxtaposition of the colloquial with the metaphorical, he declares, with beautifully measured understatement: ...things should start to get interesting right about now... so drawing us into the present moment he's experiencing.

The next lines again delicately set metaphor against self-effacing wit: ...My clothes are wet/Tight on my skin/ Not as tight as the corner I've painted myself in... Dylan's use of the classic blues technique of using self-deprecating wit to counterpose and fight despair has rarely been so refined. The sense of emotional ambiguity here reflects the classic lines from Don't Think Twice, It's All Right (1963) : ...thinking and wonderin'/Walkin' down the road/I once loved a woman/ A child I'm told/ I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul... Here again the singer deploys ironic humour to con us into thinking that he’s really OK. But we know better. Now he attempts to resort to romantic cliché, clutching out to his lover’s hands in the hope of rescue: …I know that fortune is waiting to be kind/ So give me your hand and say you’ll be mine….  But just as he appeals to his lover, or perhaps his saviour, for rescue, we know that he cannot be saved from drowning. The song’s last lines confront death head on: …the emptiness is endless/cold as the clay… followed by the deliciously enigmatic …you can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way…  before the final ‘stayed in Mississippi’ kicks in. These lines seem to sum up the emotional price of the turmoil that the singer depicts. As he sings in Shelter From The Storm (1975) …something there’s been lost…

Perhaps Bob Dylan’s greatest quality as a performer is his willingness, even as he grows old, to continue to search for some elusive notion of perfection. In concert he continually remodels and rephrases the expression and emotion in his songs, as if continually grasping for the perfect way of using the words and music he has conjured to express what is in his heart. In the first version of Mississippi on Tell Tale Signs he comes as close as he ever has. Yet it’s quite possible that this version was merely the first complete performance of a song which he later rerecorded for Love And Theft and then reworked in concert many times over. Over the years there are many instances where a version of a song he has appeared to pass over for official release has, in retrospect, become virtually definitive. Here, as with the version of Blind Willie McTell released on The Bootleg Series 1-3, the simplicity of the musical arrangement throws the nuances of Dylan’s vocal expression into the sharpest relief. As he sang in 1964’s Restless Farewell: ….. it's not to stand naked under unknowin' eyes/ It's for myself and my friends my stories are sung….

The version of Mississippi on Disc Two adds bass and drums, attempting to  build the song towards a series of musical climaxes at the end of each verse. The vocal is more restrained and controlled, tinged with a more consistent sense of regret. The players seem a little hesitant and the song never achieves the sense of uplift of the Love And Theft version, though its musical structure clearly presages the final recorded version. It loses the sense of vulnerability that characterises the first version, though it is interesting as a ‘work in progress’.

The third version is quite different. A number of lines are omitted and others substituted. Some are rearranged. Of course, this may actually be an earlier version of the song. But its use of fuller instrumentation (though the rhythm section is more restrained here) suggests that this was an alternative development of the ‘naked’ original. The rhythm is slightly jauntier, almost veering towards a reggae beat, and organ is prominent featured. Dylan’s vocal is more expansive here - he stretches out phrases confidently. There seems to be an attempt to make the song less obviously ‘poetic’ and more direct in the manner of other Time Out Of Mind songs like  Standing In The Doorway and Not Dark Yet. The tone of this version is more obviously confessional: I'm standing in the shadows with an aching heart/ I'm looking at the world tear itself apart…  he begins. In the alternate second verse he begins …. Well I been loving you too long, I know you ain't no good/It don't make a bit of difference to me, don't see why it should… The first line here echoes an Otis Redding song and there’s a more direct reference to the ‘woman done me wrong’ theme than occurs elsewhere. The most memorable change of lyric is in the final verse, where the singer depicts himself as so spiritually bereft as to be ‘invisible’:  ….Winter goes into summer, summer goes into fall/I look into the mirror, don't see anything at all…  The third version is the one closest to the general tone of Time Out Of Mind, yet it still somehow does not fit with that album’s overall sombreness and intention to communicate by stripping back metaphor. Mississippi is ultimately too ‘poetic’ for that collection of songs and fits more neatly into the playful ambiguities of Love And Theft, although even there it seems to stand alone from the other material.

What makes Mississippi such a triumph is its universality, its emotional openness and honesty. Here Dylan bares his soul for all the world to see, yet he carries it off with supremely graceful aplomb. His dilemmas and despair are those which all of us in the ‘jungle’ of modern life all share. The song is a metaphorical summation of the struggle which Tell Tale Signs dramatises, summing up the plight of the outsider poet: ‘a stranger nobody sees’. The poet weighs the burdens of the earthly life and sees himself drowning in it all. He foresees the inevitability of his death, mourns the death of his youth, yet despite it all he is determined to carry on. Mississippi is perhaps his most eloquent summation of the aesthetic of the blues - that of the transmutation of suffering into a means of spiritual survival. And in the version which begins Tell Tale Signs we are allowed in to experience that process in a way that is sometimes painful, sometimes beautiful, but always expressively and uncompromisingly intimate.

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This series will continue very soon. Naturally I will be devoting more space to the album's 'original' songs rather than the live versions.

Check out the great Dylan website VISIONS OF DYLAN 

At Jamsbio online mag there's an article about best Dylan sites . If you've enjoyed my stuff here why not contact them on the form at the bootom and mention this site!

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

My books WHO COULD ASK FOR MORE: RECLAIMING THE BEATLES and BE SEEING YOU: DECODING
THE PRISONER 
can be bought from Amazon.co.uk by clicking on these links (OK well you have to pay a bit of money too!)

I am now working on a book on Bob Dylan which will be called DETERMINED TO STAND. Thought I'd mention that before someone else nicks the title! The book concentrates on Dylan's work of the 1990s and 200s.

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Sunday, 22 February 2009 01:25:09 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [5]  | 
Thursday, 19 February 2009
                 


                                     Things should start to get interesting right about now...


 

Despite his difficult relationship with the recording process and his focus on live performance, Bob Dylan has always conceived his albums as expressive units - groups of songs arranged in a particular order for specific effects. This is obvious in the case of albums as diverse as Blood On The Tracks, Nashville Skyline or Slow Train Coming, each of which has a clear thematic unity. But even in his early acoustic days Dylan's albums were also arranged, to some extent, as continuous narratives. The Times They Are A-Changin', for example, is a kind of Whitmanesque socio-political manifesto, beginning with the poet fervidly extolling the virtues and power of youth (in the title track) and ending with the defiant exhaustion of a much older narrator in Restless Farewell. During this period of his life Dylan was outpouring large numbers of songs, many of which never found his way onto their records. Listening to the Times They Are A-Changin' outtakes on the first part of The Bootleg Series (and the earlier Biograph), one is struck by the difference in tone of those 'rejected' songs. Pieces like Eternal Circle, Percy's Song, Lay Down Your Weary Tune, Seven Curses and Moonshiner present a more relaxed artist, whose singing is less harsh and who seems to be seeking a kind of elusive lyrical vision of beauty which, on the official album, is sublimated to the harsh irony of the politicised individual stories of Hattie Carroll, Hollis Brown and Medgar Evars. In 1967 Dylan threw away an entire collection of the wildly brilliant songs of The Basement Tapes because none of them would have fit in with the surreal quasi-Biblical moralism of John Wesley Harding. Throughout his career he has rejected many songs which - however good they might be on their own terms - have not seemed to him to fit in with the tone of a particular album. Thus Blind Willie McTell was omitted from Infidels and Caribbean Wind from Shot Of Love, even though their 'replacements' were arguably vastly inferior.

The Bootleg Series has scooped up much of this material, along with many widely differing alternate takes of the songs from the original albums. Since its first volumes were released in 1993, it built up into an impressive corpus, presenting an alternative picture of Dylan's work which is often looser, softer and more expressively emotional - more 'musical' - than the harsher, less uncompromising tone of much of his 'official canon'. Tell Tale Signs - which concentrates heavily on the outtakes from Oh Mercy and Time Out Of Mind - breaks from the pattern of previous releases by abandoning a chronological approach and thus takes on the challenge of becoming a 'proper' Bob Dylan album - one with its own story, its own approach to the way it presents the material. As one familiar with Dylan's more obscure work of the last few years I could bemoan the exclusion of a number of brilliant cover versions such as the lip smacking precision of his version of A Red Cadillac And A Black Mustache (from a Sun Records tribute) or the taut irony of his reading of I Can't Get You Off My Mind from a Hank Williams tribute album or his extravagantly tongue in cheek updating of Dean Martin's Return To Me from the Sopranos soundtrack . There are also only brief tasters here of the hundreds of live covers of folk and blues material he performed throughout the earlier periods of the 'Never Ending Tour. And of course the many widely different variants on Dylan's own songs performed during this period. But Tell Tale Signs has its own agenda - an exploration of Dylan's creative journey to bring his songs to realisation. And the three album set certainly has a story (in fact, a number of 'parallel' stories) to tell - that of Dylan's creative renaissance from Oh Mercy onwards, of his newly intense immersion in and fascination with the blues in all its diverse forms, and of the way he treats each song as a malleable, ever-changing entity.


Without prelude, we are launched into the heart of this creative process. The stunning, heart-stopping version of Mississippi (a Time Out Of Mind outtake) that kicks off the album is one of Dylan's greatest performances, ranking with the 1983 rendition of Blind Willie McTell as perhaps his most moving and captivating expression of the transformative power of the blues. The accompaniment is similarly spartan - just a lone, echoey guitar - as Dylan uses shifting geographical and historical metaphors to express what appears to be regret over a lost love while simultaneously tracing an exploration of the artist's struggles with his own creative processes. This struggle is itself the story that Tell Tale Signs relates. Dylan's vocal modulates between pained harshness and whispered transcendence. The recording is so intimate that you can hear the singer's breath between the lines, catch his moments of hesitation. The combination of all this produces spine-tingling moments of great intensity as Dylan takes us on a roller coaster ride through different emotional states. It's a near-perfect fulfillment of Dylan's long-stated ambition to be able to use the form of the blues to uplift both himself and the listener from despair towards joy, just as the old blues masters he so admires were able to do. Many commentators have been puzzled as to why Mississippi was omitted from Time Out Of Mind when lesser songs (like Million Miles or Dirt Road Blues) were included. But Time Out Of Mind is conceived as – to use an earlier Dylan phrase – a 'journey through dark heat', an artist confronting both his own mortality and the darkest depths of his psyche. It is an album which begins with the burnt out cynicism of Love Sick, progresses through the hellish despair of songs like Cold Irons Bound and Can't Wait, toys with a kind of surrender of spiritual struggle in Standing In The Doorway, Tryin' To Get To Heaven and Not Dark Yet until it ends in the bizarre moment of existential release that concludes the extraordinary closer Highlands. Time Out Of Mind tells the story of an artist's struggle to release his own inner creative energies after years of under-achievement. Mississippi does not belong on that album, because in terms of spiritual and creative freedom (which, for Dylan, are very much the same thing), it's already there.

In many ways Tell Tale Signs presents an alternative picture of Time Out Of Mind, including as it does various outtakes from the album, alternate versions and live performances of its songs. It tells a similar story on a broader canvas, dipping into and out of Dylan's history of the past two decades, hinting at some of the major influences on his latter 9and, of course, earlier) years – Ralph Stanley, Robert Johnson, Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family – pioneers of the distinctively pre-rock and roll American art that Dylan has come to embrace as his 'prayer book'. There are a few alternate versions of the spiritually wracked Oh Mercy songs, a couple of very different variants of the recent Modern Times tracks and some of his diverse work for film soundtracks. Then there are three quite different Time Out Of Mind versions of Mississippi holding the whole thing together, each one taking the song to a different place with variations in instrumentation, phrasing and expression. There have been complaints about the album repeating itself with so many versions of the songs being present, but the purpose of the presence of the variants is to show how, in Dylan's hands, a song is forever malleable; that no two performances are exactly the same, as anyone who has been to more than one Bob Dylan concert will testify. In the fullness of time it may emerge that this need for endless variation has been Dylan's most profound contribution to song craft and performance art. Through this method of presentation of his songs, which relies on spontenaiety, on filtering the emotion of a song through how the artist is feeling at that precise instant - in giving the illusion of 'stopping time', if only for a fleeting 'stolen moment' - Dylan ensures that his work can never become mere 'background music', the stuff of empty nostalgia.

At an age where many artists of his generation are content to bask in the reflected glory of their youth in hugely lucrative 'comeback tours', Dylan continues to reinvent his song catalogue every time he opens his mouth to sing. Sometimes the results are a long way from 'perfection' - the sound that comes out of his mouth may be an ugly croak, a disgusted wheeze. Sometimes a completely new arrangement of a song will meander into a dissatisfyingly discordant mess. At other times he will suddenly throw up a way of expressing a line which gives a song he may have sung thousands of times an entirely new slant. Such moments are those which his most devoted fans treasure. They may occur in concert, in the studio or in rehearsal – in front of tens of thousands of listeners or just a handful. Sadly, they rarely find their way onto official releases. Tell Tale Signs goes a little way towards redressing the balance.

Volume One features Mississippi as a stark country blues, while Volume Two uses a slow back beat and some swirling keyboard passages to build the song towards several crescendos. This is the take that most resembles the version finally released on Love And Theft in 2001. Volume Three features a completely different first verse and a number of lyrical variations. Though the lyrics are less poetic than the released track, its more personal and 'confessional' focus takes it close to the overall tone of Time Out Of Mind. One line in particular ...Winter goes into summer/Summer goes into fall/I look into the mirror/ Don't see anything at all... recalls the spiritual 'hollowness' of songs like Not Dark Yet and Standing In The Doorway. I would venture a guess that this version of the song was recorded later than those on Volumes One and Two in an abortive attempt to mould the song's emotional textures to bring it more into line with the emotional resonances of the album.

Ultimately, though, Dylan shelved the song and it found a more appropriate home on the zestfully energetic and playful Love and Theft. The version on that album features a full band and indulges in the musical virtuosity and intensity that characterises the album's 'freewheeling' sensibility. But on Tell Tale Signs Volume One we are privileged to witness a performance that, though one could regard it as a basic run through of the song, is incredibly rich with nuance, subtle shades of feeling and - most powerfully of all – a sense of personal liberation. It is a performance that at times makes you want to cry and at others to weep. Sometimes it makes you want to do both at the same time. In its sense of spontaneity, its complete immersion in its subject matter and with Dylan's mastery of vocal phrasing, it captures the absolute essence of what the blues can be made into as a medium for the most heartfelt, playful and meaningful poetic expression.

It is not surprising that - if my earlier assumption is correct - Dylan returned to the original lyric of Mississippi. The words of the song are already fine tuned to near perfection, each line rich in signification, combining richly suggestive poetic intensity with colloquial aphorism in a mysterious alchemy that Dylan has made his own. The song concerns a typical 'lost love' situation and the lyrics focus on the singer's regretfulness regarding his own 'bad timing' in 'blowing his chances' with the woman he is addressing. Yet, as in so many other Dylan songs, this scenario merely sets up a structure for wider observations and concerns, both personal and universal. Central to the whole piece is the use of American geography as a metaphor for both the failed relationship and - on a deeper level - for the artist's personal struggle to achieve a new kind of creative freedom. In using the Mississippi river as a motif, Dylan grounds the geographical elements of the song in the mythology of the blues, just as he did with Highway 61 in Highway 61 Revisited and East Texas in Blind Willie McTell. In American literature, film and popular song the 'sense of place' has always been a dominant motif, from the Long Island of The Great Gatsby to the highways of On The Road to the dustbowl of The Grapes Of Wrath to the landscapes of Monument Valley in John Ford's westerns to the delicious roll call of American place names in Bobby Troup's joyous anthem Route 66 and Dylan's own wonderfully tongue-in-cheek Wanted Man. The Mississippi is the largest river in the United States, running from Dylan's home state of Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, literally 'dividing the country in two'. It naturally figures large in American history, culture and mythology. Mark Twain's brilliantly mischievous Huckleberry Finn, echoes of which permeate Dylan's song, features a contrary journey downriver by its boy hero and a runaway slave, so turning the river itself into a metaphor for America itself, in all its mad variety, extreme prejudice and rich colour. The Mississippi Delta is also famously the 'home of the blues' and its relevant place names feature heavily in the expansive canon of blues material on which Dylan so often draws.

What makes Mississippi so especially effective is its use of a kind of language in which natural speech patterns slide with apparently effortless ease into poetic metaphor and alliteration. Throughout his career Dylan's work has attempted to fuse the vernacular - especially the characteristic patterns of certain forms of colloquial American speech - with the consciously poetic. Certain songs like Gates Of Eden or Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands or Changing Of The Guards seem to inhabit the deliberately 'poetic' mode whereas others (like Lay Lady Lay, Is Your Love In Vain or I'll Be Your Baby Tonight) use a deliberate kind of 'plainspeak'. But Mississippi belongs to the group of songs such as Don't Think Twice, It's Alright or You Ain't Goin' Nowhere or You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go which seem to utilise both modes simultaneously. When Dylan is working like this, even the simplest lines can take on a considerable wealth of potential meanings. Mississippi is full of poetic imagery, but its most effective moments occur when Dylan slips into a more conversational tone. This is especially fitting as Mississippi is in some ways a song about songwriting, about how the process of inspiration itself occurs, about the artist's troubles in 'loving' his poetic muse. In another sense Mississippi is addressed to Dylan's audience, a 'lover' to whom he declares his undying devotion. Here Dylan addresses the crisis of inspiration - which, to him, was a spiritual crisis – which bedevilled him in his post-'conversion' years. To Dylan, the 'state' of Mississippi (to use a Whitmanesque metaphor) represents a state of immersion in the imagery and mentality of the blues itself. Dylan has always drawn on this as a source of inspiration but here his over reliance on it is seen a kind of prison for him (although ironically the song, like most of Dylan's work, is clearly focused through the form of the blues). So it is surely not accidental that Mississippi begins Tell Tale Signs and that we find a version of it on each of the three albums, as the story it relates is the story of the album itself, and by implication of the last two decades of Dylan's creative life - the story of personal reinvention and re-engagement with his original muse, the 'Tambourine Man' himself.


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Well hello again! It's been some time since I've had the time to continue these pieces but I hope to be going pretty much full steam for a while now!

Part Two of this should be following extremely soon. Some of the songs on TTS have already been covered in the 'Soundtrack Songs' Section, which this series seems to have superseded

As ever, I'm happy to receive any thoughts or comments in the box below or directly to me at chris@chrisgregory.org

Some time ago,. Michael Gray asked me to mention his upcoming lecture tour' Bob Dylan And The Poetry Of The Blues' . Michael's the author of 'Song And Dance Man' and 'The Bob Dylan Encyclopaedia'. Sadly he didn't like MODERN TIMES very much but hopefully reading my blog may have encouraged him to listen again. His website can be found HERE

Here are the dates:


Thu Feb 19, 8pm Colchester Arts Centre, UK
Church St., Colchester, Essex
Box Office: 01206 500900 / www.colchesterartscentre.com
tickets £10, £8 concessions

Fri Feb 20, 8pm Belltable Arts Centre, Limerick, Ireland
temporarily at 36 Cecil Street, Limerick, Eire
Box Office: ticketline 061 319 866 or:
boxoffice@belltable.ie
tickets €15, €12 concessions

Fri Mar 6, 7.30pm Birkenhead Pacific Road Arts Centre, UK
Pacific Road, Birkenhead, Wirral CH41 1LJ
Box Office: 0151 666 0000 or:
http://www.pacificroad.co.uk/webpages/booking.asp
tickets £10, £8 concessions

Tue Mar 31, tba Daemen College, Amherst NY, USA
4380 Main Street, Amherst NY 14226
Box Office: n/a; free admission (may be campus members only)

Thu Apr 2, 4.30pm Washington College, Chestertown MD, USA
The Rose O’Neill Literary House, 300 Washington Avenue,
Chestertown, Maryland 21620
Box Office: n/a; free admission (may be campus members only)

Fri Apr 3, 7.30pm Nyack Village Theatre, Nyack NY, USA
94 Main Street, Nyack NY 10960
Box Office: [001] 845-367-1423
tickets $20

Fri Apr 17, 8pm Buxton Opera House, UK
Water Street, Buxton, Derbyshire SK17 6XN
Box Office: 0845 127 2190 / www.buxtonoperahouse.org.uk/booking
tickets £8

Thu Apr 23, 7.30pm Herne Bay Little Theatre, UK
Box Office: 01227 366004
tickets £12, £10 concessions

Wed Apr 29, 4.30pm Farmingdale State College, State Univ. of New York, USA
English & Humanities Department, Farmingdale State College
2350 Broadhollow Road, Farmingdale (Long Island)
NY 11735-1021, USA; Tel: [001] 631-420-2050
Box Office: n/a; free admission (may be campus members only)

Sat May 2, 8pm Bridgwater Arts Centre, UK
11-13 Castle Street, Bridgwater, Somerset TA6 3DD
Box Office: 01278 422700 / www.bridgwaterartscentre.co.uk
tickets £12, £10 concessions

Sat May 9, 8pm The Market Theatre, Ledbury, UK
Market Street, Ledbury, Herefordshire HR8 2AQ
Box Office: c/o Tourist Information Office 01531 636147 /
www.themarkettheatre.com/
tickets £10

Wed May 13, 7.30pm Uppingham Theatre, Rutland UK
32 Stockerston Road, Uppingham, Rutland LE15 9UD
Box Office: 01572 820820 / upp.the.arts@uppingham.co.uk
www.uppthearts.co.uk / or in person at Uppingham Bookshop
or at Stamford Arts Centre
tickets £8.50

Fri May 15, 7.30pm Cotswold Playhouse, Stroud, UK
Parliament Street, Stroud GL5 1LW
Box Office c/o Stroud Tourist Office: 01453 760960 /
www.cotswoldplayhouse.co.uk/jm/
tickets £12, £11 priority booking, £10 concessions

Sat May 16, 7.30m Festival of the Spoken Word, Berwick-on-Tweed, UK
The Main House, The Maltings Theatre & Arts Centre,
Eastern Lane, Berwick upon Tweed TD15 1AJ
Box Office: 01289 330999 / www.maltingsberwick.co.uk
tickets £10, £8 concessions

Fri May 29, 7.30pm Exchange Studio, Hazlitt Arts Centre, Maidstone
Earl Street, Maidstone, Kent ME14 1PL
Box Office: tel 01622 758611/
www.hazlittartscentre.co.uk/pages/booking.html
tickets £12.50, £10 concessions

Sat May 30, 8pm Bridport Arts Centre, Dorset UK
South Street, Bridport, Dorset DT6 3NR
Box Office: 01308 424204 / www.bridport-arts.com/
tickets tba


Thursday, 19 February 2009 00:54:40 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [5]  | 

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