Sunday, 07 February 2016

NARROW WAY


 

…Straight is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.  King James Bible, Matthew 7;14

 

For this the Golden Sun the Earth divides

And, wheel’d thro’ twelve bright signs, his chariot guides.

Five zones the heav’n surrounds: the centre glows

With fire unquench’d, and suns without repose:

At each extreme the poles in tempest tost

Dark with thick show’rs, and unremitting frost:

Between the poles and blazing zone confin’d

Lie climes to feeble man by Heav’n assign’d.

‘Mid these the signs their course obliquely run,

And star the figur’d belt that binds the sun…    

Virgil’s Georgics Book 1 V 277-302 transl. William Sotheby (1800)

 

I've got a heavy stacked woman with a smile on her face
And she has crowned my soul with grace…


         

          If the sub-Crosby ballad Soon After Midnight  is tenderly romantic, the repetitive, grinding blues riff that drones throughout Narrow Way is one clue that here we are entering much more ‘down and dirty’ territory. It’s going to be quite a ride. Narrow Way is full of wild allusions and associative imagery that sometimes resemble those of Dylan’s classic 65-66 period. Dylan growls through the song, thoroughly inhabiting the cynically lustful ‘grumpy old man’ persona established in Duquesne Whistle. The music itself hardly varies throughout the seven minutes twenty eight seconds of the recording. The effect is of a narrator who seems to be doggedly plodding through some kind of hostile landscape. …This is a hard country… he mutters darkly …to stay alive in… Blades are everywhere/and they’re breaking my skin… The setting of the song is continually shifts through space and time. Sometimes the singer appears to be addressing a particular woman and at other times he ruminates about her. He seems to have experienced some kind of betrayal yet his anger at this this is finally succeeded by a kind of lustful epiphany, in which ‘spiritual’ concerns are superseded by earthly pleasures. As in many of the best blues songs, however, the sexual bragging the singer indulges in is ambiguous. Does the singer really mean what he is saying? Or is he just teasing us?

          One of the most immediately noticeable features of the song is the lyric plays around with ‘spiritual’ allusions. Although the title Narrow Way, with its very well known biblical connotations, suggests that this might indeed be one of those ‘religious songs’ Dylan (perhaps mischievously) claimed he was trying to write at the time, and although the lyrics are indeed concerned with ‘spiritual matters’, the Biblical references seem to be thrown in rather playfully into a song which gleefully conveys a very ‘freewheeling’ view of how the ‘path to salvation’ can be achieved. The narrator’s tone sometimes recalls Dylan’s animation of God’s ‘hipster jive’ conversation with Abraham in Highway 61 Revisited, with the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane’ being juxtaposed in deliberately provocative ways. The song is built around a refrain borrowed from the Mississippi Sheiks’ 1930s blues You’ll Work Down To Me Someday. In the original the narrator sounds rather hurt and angry with his lover, adopting a rather rhetorically ‘humble’ posture. However, Dylan’s spirited diction (and the sly addition of the word ‘surely’) twists the words into a sexually suggestive motif, as if he is really asking her to ‘work her way down’ his body. Is this an invitation for fellatio or an admission by the singer that he is ‘below her’ in the sexual pecking order? Or is he (perhaps rather cheekily) addressing some ‘higher power’, begging for his failing faith to be restored? Dylan has always enjoyed the way in which the blues can give a singer license to use sexual metaphors to comment on social and religious issues, so that the poetry of such songs can stand alone – leaving the interpretation to the listener, and allowing the ‘meaning’ of the words to be always open to variation. In Narrow Way, despite its apparently dark themes, he pushes this element of comic ambiguity to its limits.

         

          Dylan has also always demonstrated his understanding of the fact that humour is an important element of the blues. Much of his early repertoire consisted of satirical ‘talkin’ blues’ songs and wacky bluesy numbers like Freewheelin’s mock-romantic Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance. By the mid ‘60s, in Outlaw Blues, Maggie’s Farm, On The Road Again  and From A Buick 6, he had developed a form of surreal comic invention based on blues structures which reached its apogee on the masterful mocking of social pretensions on the hilarious Chicago-blues Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat. Later examples include the lugubrious ‘shaggy dog’ story Highlands (1997) and the quasi-political ruminations of Tweedle Dum And Tweedle Dee (2001), not to mention the unfairly maligned Wiggle Wiggle (1990), actually an ingenious tongue-in-cheek ‘children’s song about sex’. In many songs by Dylan’s favourite blues, artists sex and religion are juxtaposed with wry humour. The Mississippi Sheiks’ He Calls That Religion mocks a preacher who …used to reach just to save souls/ But now he’s preachin’ just to buy jelly roll…  In Blind Willie McTell’s Lord Send Me An Angel, the singer pleads to God to help him overcome not only his lustful urges but also his apparently unfailing attractiveness to women. Willie sings: My baby studying evil and I'm studying evil too/ Gonna hang round here to see what my baby gon' do/ I can't be trusted and I can't be satisfied/ When the men see me coming, they go pin their womens to their side In Narrow Way Dylan adopts a similarly self-mocking tone, yet his narrative stance is continually being refocused. Its narrator appears (at least some of the time) to be addressing (and sometimes referring to) a (very raunchy) lover. At other times he appears (in a bizarre, even ‘blasphemous’ way) to be castigating Jesus directly, suggesting that it is his choice of ‘earthly pleasures’ that has in fact ‘saved’ him.

          In the first verse, we meet the song’s protagonist, a ‘spiritual wanderer’ who has apparently retreated into the desert to make some sense of life. It may be significant here that the end of the first line: …I’m gonna walk across the desert ‘till I’m in my right mind… references one of Dylan’s earliest mentors, the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. In America, his great poem of rejection of the 1950s patriotic American ethos, perhaps the most memorable and striking (and of course, controversial) lines are these:                   

  

 America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.
I don’t feel good don’t bother me.
I won’t write my poem till I’m in my right mind

           

          Thus Dylan’s narrator, like Ginsberg, needs to liberate himself from preconceptions in order to be able to ‘think straight’. He seems to have walked away from his home and his family and his previous beliefs. A voice is whispering in his ear, but he tells it to …Go back home/ Leave me alone… He has rejected any connection with his previous existence: …Nothing back there that I can call my own… The first chorus suggests that he is on his own path to salvation, or enlightenment, and that the ‘voice’ that is calling to him will have to make a considerable effort to reach him. The parallel with the Biblical story of Jesus’ ‘forty days and nights’ in the desert is rather obvious, but here the disillusioned narrator is rather scathingly rejecting the advances of the ‘spirit’ that is following him and ‘whispering in his ear’. As yet we do not know whether this ‘voice’ is that of God or the devil, and neither, perhaps, does the narrator. But it is clear that he is disillusioned with conventional ways of thinking, and that certain events have made him extremely angry.

           There seems to be a clue to the nature of these events in the next verse with its rather bizarre allusion to American history, referring to when the British burned the White House down in the war between Britain and the USA in 1814. Ever since this, the narrator declares … there’s a bleeding wound in the heart of town…  This war, sometimes known as the ‘Second War of Independence’ had great significance in American history in that it marked the point at which the USA began to employ a professional army and thus to assert itself on the world political stage. It largely resulted in victories for the USA, especially in the battles of Baltimore, Pittsburgh and New Orleans. The reference seems to suggest that the US is carrying some kind of ‘stigmata’, or some unhealed or festering abrasion. The weirdly fractured quasi-Biblical references then begin to pile up. …I saw you drinking from an empty cup.. the narrator cries, …I saw you buried and I saw you dug up… and then …I kissed your cheek, I dragged your plow/ You broke my heart, I was your friend 'til now… These appear to be allusions to the Last Supper, the resurrection and Jesus’ betrayal in Gethsemene. Yet the language used is curt, almost brutal. Even more scathing are the lines …You went and lost your lovely head/ For a drink of wine and a crust of bread… and later …Your father left you, your mother too/ Even death has washed it's hands of you… The narrator appears to be callously rejecting the Jesus-figure who is whispering in his ear. The references to ‘bread and wine’, the crucifixion and the resurrection and the ‘washing of hands’ (as in Pontius Pilate) are made with apparent disdain. This rejection appears to be linked with the fact that the narrator appears to be fleeing some kind of war zone. …This is a hard country to stay alive in… he tells us. There is an odd reference to …the courtyard of the golden sun… which seems to evoke an image of the Inca capital at Cuzco, which was smashed by the Conquistadors who were committing their genocide, which was carried out, of course, ‘in the name of the Lord’.  The narrator seems to be making a link between Christianity and imperialism (and perhaps American ‘imperialism’ in particular. This is reinforced in the lines … We looted and plundered on distant shores… which is followed by the vituperative ….why is my share not equal to yours?... This suggests, if we did not know already, that this not necessarily a sympathetic narrator.

The juxtaposition of coarse and religious language in the song continues to be both striking and jarring. Following the references to American history, a number of lines seem to be alluding to popular American hymns. The refrain of At The Gate That Leads To Glory  by the nineteenth century hymnodist Fanny Crosby runs: …Strait is the gate and narrow is the way/ That leadeth unto life above/ Strive to enter in, oh, strive to enter in!/Come to a Saviour’s love… We have already seen how Dylan has twisted this around here. Another popular hymn, Dear Refuge Of My Weary Soul (written by Anne Steele in 1717) begins: …Dear refuge of my weary soul, On thee when sorrows rise/ On thee, when waves of trouble roll, My fainting hope relies… Here Dylan’s narrator cries …Look down angel from the skies/ Help my weary soul to rise… but is apparently not heard. Another popular hymn O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing  is parodied here in the next verse, in which the narrator’s rejection of his ‘saviour’ becomes quite explicit: …You got too many lovers waiting at the wall/ If I had a thousand tongues I couldn't count them all…  Then the narrator continues, rather helplessly: … Yesterday I could've thrown them all in the sea/ Today even one may be too much for me…

          As the song nears its (almost literal) climax, the narrator now seems to be making a direct address to a woman with whom he can satiate his lust as so achieve his ‘deliverance’. He addresses her as …cake walking baby…. This is a reference to a popular ‘dirty jazz’ tune of the 1920s, Cake Walking Babies From Home, a favourite of Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Bessie Smith. The song begins:  Cake walkers may come, cake walkers may go, but I wanna tell you 'bout a couple I know/ High steppin' pair, Debonair/ When it comes for bus'ness not a soul can compare… These ‘cake walkers’ are a couple of notable prostitutes who are unafraid to ‘strut their stuff’ across town. With little ambiguity, Dylan’s narrator tells the woman he wants to take her on a …roller coaster ride… and to …lay my hands all over you… In the next verse he memorably declares … I’ve got a heavy stacked woman with a smile on her face/And she has crowned my soul with grace… The juxtapositioning of sexual and religious imagery is quite explicit (and really very delicious!) here. But the narrator is prepared to go even further: I'm still hurting from an arrow that pierced my chest/ I'm gonna have to take my head and bury it between your breasts.. Dylan pronounces the lines with great relish. He rather mockingly (even ‘sacrilegiously’ refers to himself as a martyr here. But sex is his salvation. Not true love, but ‘unspiritual’ lust. A ‘narrow way’ to ‘Amazing Grace’ indeed…



           Finally, the narrator has been ‘saved’. He tells the ‘heavy stacked woman’ that …You can guard me while I sleep/ Kiss away the tears I weep… Dylan reinforces this with a couple of quotations from Edward Fitzgerald’s renowned translation of the eleventh century Persian hymn to hedonism, The Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam, in which the poet extols the virtue of earthly pleasures and finds in them a kind of spiritual awakening. Life is seen as a continual ‘moveable feast’: …The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ, Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit/Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it….  Dylan paraphrases this here: Been dark all night but now it's dawn/The moving finger is moving on… Khayyam’s poem also famously describes how he discerns a spiritual meaning in an ordinary earthly process, the turning of a potter’s wheel. …For in the Market-place, one Dusk of Day/I watch'd the Potter thumping his wet Clay/And with its all obliterated Tongue/ It murmur'd---"Gently, Brother, gently, pray!" Dylan’s lines in the final verse …I heard a voice at the dusk of day/ Saying, "Be gentle brother, be gentle and pray."  clearly point us towards an experience of true spiritual awakening being achieved through everyday life-giving processes. In a Zen-like moment of revelation, having first rejected God (or ‘enlightenment’) the narrator has finally found it (or ‘Him’, if you like). Thus: …If I can't work up to you, you'll surely have to work down to me someday…

          Yet Narrow Way is neither a statement of belief in nor a ‘rejection’ of conventional religion. Dylan is clearly singing through the voice of a character he has created. In some ways this character resembles the ageing (and often lustful) voice of the previous two songs, one who is weary of spiritual struggle and who wishes to take part in earthly pleasures while he is still able. What this song (and the others on Tempest) clearly does not to is present any kind of ‘religious’ message or dogma. Dylan’s mature work engages deeply with religious concepts but he always leaves us to draw our own conclusions. He is a poet, not a preacher. In his great song of self-examination My Back Pages (1964) he had long ago rejected the ‘preachy’ elements that may have affected his earliest incarnation as a ‘protest singer’: In a soldier's stance, I aimed my hand at the mongrel dogs who teach/ Fearing not that I'd become my enemy in the instant that I preach…  As a symbolist poet, Dylan presents the listener with images that cannot be reduced to a simple ‘message’. His use of shifting perspectives also enables him to present a point of view without necessarily identifying with it himself. This will be most clearly demonstrated later on in this album’s extraordinarily violent Pay In Blood.  His singing style here, like the musical mode he uses, has some similarity to that of the mid 60s, when he took so much pleasure in wrapping ringing phrases around his tongue, presenting his listeners with endless pleasure in interpreting his words. What are we to make, then, of these lines in the final verse of Narrow Way: …I love women, and she loves men/ We've been to the west and we're going back again…? Given that the action of a song takes place in a desert, and that it features a character who is being subjected to ‘temptations’, and that the desert in which Jesus is supposed to have undergone such temptations is now the very location of a ‘war on terror’ between members of different religions, can we then place this song in a contemporary context? Does ‘the west’ here represent the site of free-thinking, of religious freedom? Or does it represent that kind of religious hypocrisy and imperialism that was under attack earlier on. Well, maybe. But we have to remember that, despite the dark places this song takes us to, Narrow Way is – like many of Dylan’s greatest songs – fundamentally encouraging us to look at life with a light heart. Or as Omar Khayyam puts it: 

Here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough,
A flask of wine, a book of verse—and thou
Beside me singing in the wilderness—
And wilderness is paradise enow.

 -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Well, this was a bit of a tough one..... Comments invited!!!     





Sunday, 07 February 2016 23:08:05 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [2]  | 
Sunday, 24 January 2016


SOON AFTER MIDNIGHT


THESEUS. Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour

Draws on apace; four happy days bring in

Another moon; but, O, methinks, how slow

This old moon wanes! She lingers my desires,

Like to a step-dame or a dowager,

Long withering out a young man's revenue.

HIPPOLYTA. Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;

Four nights will quickly dream away the time;

And then the moon, like to a silver bow

New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night

Of our solemnities.

    A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act 1, Sc. 1

 

It's soon after midnight
And I’ve got a date with the fairy queen…

 

 

        With the deceptively gentle Soon After Midnight we are still being ‘softened up’ for the carnage that will follow. The song is addressed to an ambiguous love object, a ghostly dream figure who seems to take on various different forms and appear and disappear at will. One of Poe’s heroines, perhaps… a character in ‘a dream within a dream’… Someone who will always be slightly out of the singer’s, and our, grasp. The song uses a melody that is based on a popular standard of the 1930s, The Moon Got In My Eyes, written by Johnny Burke (the lyricist of many popular tunes including Pennies From Heaven and Moonlight Becomes You) and composer Arthur Johnston. The song was made famous by Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra later recorded a memorable version with Nelson Riddle’s orchestration. The sentiments are a conventional portrayal of the disillusioned lover who tells us that ...I thought a kingdom was in sight /That I would have the right to claim /But with the morning's early light/ I didn't have a dream to my name… The refrain complains that …I guess I should have seen right through you/ But the moon got in my eyes  Dylan adapts this melody, and retains some of the song’s mournful and regretful tone. He toys with romantic clichés throughout, but also expresses a few dark and murderous hints that serve to prepare us for the songs of apocalyptic rage that are to follow. Yet Soon After Midnight is also imbued with mystery and magic. If this is a love song, it seems to be directed not at a real person but at a mythical spirit who the singer seems intent on surrendering himself to, at whatever cost.

        As the train fades into the distance, drums and guitars kick into a slow, languid rhythm. Dylan’s voice, when it comes in after a few seconds, is dreamy, detached, almost a whisper. The language of the song is precise and compressed, the enunciation of every word clear and distinct. There is certainly no ‘Louis Armstrong’ rasp here. The singer pronounces the words sweetly and lovingly. As he delivers the first rhyme he rolls the words around his tongue, adopting the traditional posture of the humbled lover: …I’m searching for phrases/To sing your praises… Already there is a slight suggestion of irony. The singer sounds almost apologetic, as if he is already lapsing into cliché because the emotions he feels are rendering him almost speechless. Maybe he’s down on his knees, begging to be heard, confessing his own inadequacies: …I need to tell someone… he breathes. Then he begins to draw us inexorably into the world of his own imagination: ..It’s soon after midnight/And my day has just begun… We are entering a kind of half-conscious, half-dream state. As if to lull us into submission, Dylan entices us with this lovely melody into a dreamscape in which we can never quite tell the difference between poetic fantasy and harsh reality. Having played the penitent lover, he now he begins to explain how he has been wronged: …A girl named Honey/Took my money/ She was passing by … The ‘money/honey’ rhyme again flirts ironically with cliché, and itself refers to the 1950s standard about a ‘gold digging’ woman Money Honey, written by Jesse Stone and recorded by The Drifters, Little Richard, Elvis Presley and many others. But the line ‘she was passing by’, and the singer’s apparent detachment, as conveyed by the smooth vocal, suggests that the girl is a mere passing shadow, a ghostly figure or an illusion. The way Dylan draws out his delivery of ‘passing’ adds to this effect, which is further emphasised by … It’s soon after midnight/And the moon is in my eye…  Here, the central image of The Moon Got In My Eye is retained; the idea being that the singer has been ‘blinded’ by the girl’s luminescent beauty. Dylan’s adaptation of the line, however, adds another dimension to the words. ‘The moon is in my eye’ suggests a hint of madness but also a kind of reflectiveness. So we are drawn further into the narrator’s consciousness. We see our own reflection in the narrator’s eyes.

          This is the key moment of transformation in the song.  Now the narrator’s attitude changes from one of supplication to one of defiance. The calm, dreamy tone begins give way to an ominous one. In the third verse, Dylan begins with …My heart is cheerful/It's never fearful/I've been down on the killing floors…  The cheerful/fearful rhyme, like the earlier phrases/praises and money/honey sounds slightly ‘forced’, which gives the singer’s protestations an edge of tension, as if he isn’t really sure of what he’s saying and is really trying to convince himself of the veracity of his statements. The conjunction of the words used adds to this effect. The first line echoes the Biblical proverb …A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones (Proverbs 17:22, New International Bible). However, the reference to ‘killing floors’ is weirdly jarring, juxtaposing harsh blues imagery against dreamy romantic cliché. The expression features in the Howlin’ Wolf song Killing Floor (1964)(which was frequently covered by Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin) and the much earlier Skip James song Hard Time Killing Floor Blues (circa 1931). The term literally refers to the slaughterhouses in which many black workers were employed when they arrived in Chicago after migrating from the Deep South in the 1920s and 30s. The term was used in the blues as a metaphor for a hopeless situation, especially in a sexual relationship. The singer seems to be implying that he has been through so much pain in his love life that he has learned that he may as well always be ‘cheerful’. However, we may by now begin to suspect that he is merely trying to reassure himself. The next lines …I’m in no great hurry/ I'm not afraid of your fury/ I've faced stronger walls than yours… again show him struggling with an awkward rhyme, although Dylan (always the master of phrasing ‘weird’ rhymes) delivers ‘hurry’ and ‘fury’ without a moment’s embarrassment. As he pronounces the final lines here he seems to be gathering his own courage for some conflict to come. But suddenly we seem to be a rather different ‘ballpark’. The ‘girl’ that the song is addressed to seems to have placed a ‘wall’ up against him, which the singer seems determined to negotiate. The strange image of a lover’s ‘wall’ can be found in tragic story of the archetypal doomed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe, whose tale was related by Ovid in his Metamorphoses. In this story, the lovers are told by their warring families that they are not allowed to see each other and the only way they can communicate is through a crack in the wall that adjoins their houses. The two lovers later both commit suicide in a confused situation that Shakespeare adapted for the tragic ending of Romeo And Juliet. Shakespeare also mercilessly satirised Ovid’s story for considerable comic effect in the ‘play within as play’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And as the next verse will verify, Soon After Midnight itself describes a kind of Midsummer Night’s Dream, a scenario in which the illusions of love are made manifest.



     Now we are presented with more rather oddly juxtaposed references: …Charlotte the Harlot/Dresses in scarlet/ Mary dresses in green…. Here, the woman the song is addressed to appears to be being compared, in a rather self consciously obvious way, to opposing female archetypes. The harlot/scarlet rhyme (which is pronounced with delicious irony) depicts a prostitute or ‘scarlet woman’ while ‘Mary’ is a name connoting innocence (as in the mother of our Lord  in Duquesne Whistle). Then, in the song’s most delicious line, Dylan croons …it’s soon after midnight/And I’ve got a date with the fairy queen….  He sounds very pleased with himself, as he steps out of the mundane and into the magical world. The allusion to A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems fairly explicit here. The implication seems to be that the object of the singer’s affection, his ‘Titania’, is a far greater ‘catch’ than any of the other women in the song and that his love for her is magically transcendent. This mood of defiance continues in the next verse, in which the singer defies the rest of the world, those who …chirp and they chatter… shrugging this off with an apparently nonchalant … What does it matter?… But suddenly the imagery turns mysteriously violent. Those who are opposed to the romance of this modern Pyramus and Thisbe (or Romeo and Juliet) are said to be…lying and dying in their blood…  And the narrator suddenly refers to ‘two timing Slim’, another rather jarring shift (possibly a reference to ‘bad motherfucker’ anti-hero of a Johnny Otis song) and declares he will … drag his corpse through the mud…  It seems that he will be giving his enemies no quarter despite engaging in this ‘forbidden love’. And yet he still sounds serenely self confident. In the final verse the singer seems to take a deep breath before finding the courage to step out with his ‘fairy queen’. The sly juxtaposition of the title of the famous Elvis song It’s Now or Never with the shy but determined …more than ever… again emphasizes the playful, intimate nature of the address. The ironic use of the vernacular … When I met you/ I didn’t think you’d do… is charmingly counter posed against the final, rather touching, protestation of true love: …I don’t want nobody but you…

          Soon After Midnight is a subtle song of defiance, a ‘mystical love song’ that can also be seen as a testament to the artist’s devotion to his craft. While in Duquesne Whistle the singer seems to need to summon considerable energy to profess his continuing vitality, here he conveys it with a sly nod and a wink and a knowing twinkle in his eye. There is a sense that the love he is conveying is somehow forbidden, and the song jolts into weird occasional flashes of anger against those who would prevent this consummation. Again Dylan can be seen, on one level, as addressing his audience, inviting them into a pact or a ‘midnight tryst’ so that together they can plunge into the recesses of the symbolic world full of strange metamorphoses that will inhabit the rest of the album. Soon we will meet those who indeed ‘lie in their own blood’. This will be less a midsummer night’s dream than a kind of nightmare. But here is Dylan as Prospero again, weaving his magical spell, crooning smoothly through this beautiful song. The moon is in his eyes. It is past midnight. Take a deep breath… He will soon be leading us by the hand, into the darkness.

 

       



Sunday, 24 January 2016 23:09:11 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [0]  | 
Monday, 28 December 2015

DUQUESNE WHISTLE

 

“You're the only thing alive that keeps me going
You're like a time-bomb in my heart…”
               

    


             In Tempest Bob Dylan takes us on a ‘dream journey’ through storms and bitterness and rage. The dream visions increase in intensity, as he draws us into a parallel vision of ‘modern times’ in which the ghosts of the past mingle with the living. The songs become more bitter as the ‘death count gets higher’, until we are shown an apocalyptic vision of a world that is drowning as its guardians dream on. Finally, we go even beyond death itself…  Tempest represents the culmination and triumphant climax of the poetic and musical methods Dylan had been developing in Love And Theft and Modern Times, albums full of narrators who seem to live in a world where time has stopped, where ‘the future is always a thing of the past’. This world is a poetic construction in which snatches of the voices from the past, particularly those of the great blues and country singers and the great visionary poets, intermingle. The music which carries this vision is rooted in the pre rock and roll era of the 1920s to the 1950s, yet it is informed, like the poetry, by a very modern consciousness. By deliberately ‘quoting’ from so many sources in the songs on these albums, Dylan has had to face many accusers (as he has had to so many times in the past, especially in 1965-66 when he ‘went electric’ and 1979-80 when he ‘went religious’). Some unsympathetic critics seem to think that such ‘quotation’ from so many sources is the result of Dylan running out of inspiration and so having to plagiarise the work of others. The cry is the same as in 65 and 79 – why can’t he be like he used to be? Yet the way of creating songs Dylan has developed over the past decade or so gives his art an immense richness. It is as if the spirits of Ovid, Blake and Shakespeare and of Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash (and many, many others) actually live within these songs. These are songs which somehow ‘contain’ and ‘embody’ all the work of the past that they celebrate, yet which combine that work in a distinctively post modern framework. Just as Dylan’s songs in ‘60s reflected first the political and later the psychic consciousness of the first era of ‘global village’ media consciousness, so his contemporary work reflects a world in which that consciousness is no longer represented in any kind of ‘youth movement’ but has become fractured, disparate, as if we are now listening to millions of voices shouting at us at once. This consciousness is represented most clearly in the ‘digital universe’ in which we increasingly live, a world in which the products of the present and the past intermingle in a seamless flow. Most popular music has become largely irrelevant, a kind of mindless, ever-repeating muzak. So Dylan, in order to remain contemporary and not a mere relic of the past, has reinvented his art by reaching out to the past, embracing the music of the past in order to make music that expresses the true spirit of today’s world.

        Duquesne Whistle begins with a charming little vignette of a tune, a delicate, jaunty 40 second 1920s ragtime mini-overture played by Dylan, Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball on electric guitars, set against acoustic strumming. The tune is rather evocative of Tom Paxton’s famous ballad The Last Thing On My Mind, itself derived from the traditional The Leaving of Liverpool, which the young Dylan first heard the Clancy Brothers sing and turned into his own Farewell. Their narrators of these wistful odes to impotence can only cry into their beer as they sail away to some distant shore, leaving their loved ones behind. And here the musicians sound far away, stranded in time as well as space. Past and present are juxtaposed starkly, as they will be throughout the album, as suddenly the amplified drums and bass explode into action and a furious swing rhythm kicks in, as if an express train has just rounded a sharp corner and is heading full tilt towards us. Meanwhile, the country blues strummers, sitting by the train track in their overalls, are drowned out. And… lo and behold! Here is ol’ Uncle Bob, in the uniform of the conductor, holding his whistle aloft, with a lascivious smile and a peculiar twinkle in his eye, sounding for all the world like Louis Armstrong, inviting us into a world of storms – of lust and greed and revenge and murder, which will end in cataclysm. As with Modern Times and Love And Theft the songs seem to exist in a mythical Americana of the past, a kind of ‘ship of state’ battered by hurricanes on all sides. But while most of the songs on those albums were upbeat, like Summer Days or Thunder On The Mountain, or wistfully reflective, like Sugar Baby or When The Deal Goes Down, here we are in darker territory. A major ‘tempest’ is brewing. And Dylan stands in the eye of the storm, transformed into a different kind of ‘conductor’. Like Prospero, he weaves and manipulates the magic around him. Such stuff that dreams are made on. … But right now, there’s a train rushing towards us, and we are being urged to jump on board.

    The symbolic presence of the train is at the heart of the mythology of Americana. It was the laying of train lines that made possible the conquest of the West, and thus of the uniting of the continental USA. Yet in modern America the importance of trains is much diminished. In the second half of the twentieth century, they were superseded by the highways as major carriers of freight and people. So trains now tend evoke a nostalgia for that older America, in which much of the imagery and musical architecture of Dylan’s 21st century work is located. The train is, of course, is one of the key metaphorical tropes of blues imagery. For southern blacks it represented both freedom and escape, and trains make their appearance in countless blues songs. …When the whistle blows I gotta go, oh mama don’t you know… begins the refrain of Freight Train Blues, the much-recorded blues classic originally written by John Lair in 1935 and covered by Bob Dylan on his debut album in 1962. Dylan’s version, like many of its antecedents, incorporates the rhythm of the train into the musical performance. The rhythm is fast and the vocal delivery manic, and both are as exaggerated as the playfully self deprecating nature of the song itself, whose narrator was ‘born by a railroad track’ and for whom …the holler of the driver was my lullaby…  Here the train represents the high spirited determination of its narrator not to be held back or slowed down. Turning such sentiments around, in his iconic Folsom Prison Blues (1955) Johnny Cash’s ‘tortured’ (and very probably condemned) narrator sits in his cell, listening to the trains go by and imagining that …there's rich folks eatin', In a fancy dining car, They're probably drinkin' coffee, And smokin' big cigars. For this inmate, of course, there will be no escape. Trains (with their undeniably phallic qualities) can also function as sexual metaphors of various kinds. In Elvis Presley’s epochal version of Junior Parker’s Mystery Train (1955) the singer’s panting delivery imitates a train and conveys rampant sexual desire at the same time. Sex, however (like trains) can of course be slow and steady as well as fast and unrestrained. A comparison of the earlier and later versions of Dylan’s majestic It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry (1965) illustrates this well. The earlier versions (available on the epic new Bootleg Series’ The Cutting Edge) uses a standard ‘fast train’ rhythm, while the recorded version slows the pace, making the song’s extended sexual imagery, like … If I don’t make it, you know my baby will… and …Don’t my gal look fine when she’s coming after me… both more subtle and more sensual. While Elvis thrusts without restraint, Bob gives his ‘gal’ time to catch up. …I wanna be your lover/I don’t wanna be your boss… he sings. Trains work just fine as sexual metaphors, especially in musical poetry. You can speed them up, you can slow them down, you can make them judder and shake and stutter to a halt, whistles blowing…

    What Dylan loves about blues imagery is its endless ambiguity, the way its symbolism can be twisted and turned around. In another strand of the blues tradition, trains operate as religious metaphors; such as in the traditional This Train Is Bound For Glory (memorably recorded by Sister Rosetta Tharpe in 1935 and later adapted in a more secular form by Woody Guthrie), in which the passengers on the train are speeding towards heaven; Curtis Mayfield’s gospel classic People Get Ready, first recorded with his group The Impressions in 1965 (and covered several times by Dylan) develops this metaphor further, taking the holy train on a journey of liberation that symbolises the struggle of blacks and other oppressed minorities for freedom and equality. In stark contrast, in Dylan’s angry and confused ‘gospel song’ Slow Train (1979), the ‘slow train coming’ appears to represent the inevitability of Armageddon, and of the descent of God’s judgement on the wicked. It is significant that, in a recent Rolling Stone, interview Dylan states that he intended Tempest to be a more ‘religious’ album "I wanted to make something more religious. I just didn't have enough [religious songs]. Intentionally, specifically religious songs is what I wanted to do. That takes a lot more concentration to pull that off 10 times with the same thread - than it does with a record like I ended up with."  As he so often does in his interviews, Dylan is surely putting us on here. In fact, the inner conflicts in the songs on Tempest often depict spiritual conflicts, as the various narrators confront the nature of both happiness and despair, love and hate and the cruelty of fate. But there are no ‘trains to glory’ here. There seems to be a God who lurks behind these songs, but this is a diety which is distant, unknowable, even terrifying. A sneering, spitting, vengeful Jehovah. These are not songs of faith, but songs of inner turmoil, of spiritual wasting away, of prices paid in blood. These are songs that face squarely up to death. Yet, despite their ‘religious’ references, these songs do not (as the ‘other’ Dylan once wrote) ‘go gently into this good night’.

 

    Duquesne Whistle softens us up for the carnage that is to come with its jokey, metaphor-laden message of personal defiance. In the blues, trains symbolize sexual potency, which in itself can also represent defiance against the prevailing social order. From Muddy Waters’ I’m A Man  to James Brown’s It’s A Man’s Man’s World , blues singers have indulged in sexual boasting, just as rap artists do today. This celebration of the body in such music functions as a kind of unconscious rebellion against puritanical Christian values. It is a way in which culturally oppressed people can express their pride in themselves, so that the declaration of sexual freedom becomes a declaration of freedom itself, a refusal to accept the connection between sex and shame which was still dominant in the first half of the twentieth century, when the blues was at its peak. Later, the transformation of the blues into rock and roll did much to ignite the sexual revolution of the second half of the century, in which centuries of religious shame about sex were swept away and the body was celebrated, whether it be through Elvis’ ultra macho style, the early Beatles’ feminised orgasmic ‘oohs’, the Rolling Stones’ gloriously sexually ambiguous preening or Jimi Hendrix’s extraordinary expansion of sexual energy into the cosmos: …S’cuse me, while I kiss the sky!…. Thus, the sexual revolution was inevitably followed by a revolution in life styles and political and social world views. Right in the centre of all this was Bob Dylan himself, whose songs have always been permeated by the ethos and imagery of the blues. However, it is important to remember that within black American culture itself, the blues was never ‘respectable’. It was characterized, largely by black people themselves, as the ‘devil’s music’. The great mass of black Americans were God fearing church goers, out of which came the rich tradition of gospel music which, despite its obviously Christian lyrical expression, had a great deal in common with the blues in musical harmonic terms. Many blues singers actually alternated between performing blues and ‘spiritual’ music. This tension between the Lord’s music and the Devil’s music is also what energises much of early rock and roll. The extreme sexual expression in the music of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis was made even more powerful by the double edged sense in their music that this Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On was somehow shameful. This tension was also expressed very powerfully in much of the country music of the early 1950s. The music of country singers from ‘poor white’ origins like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash was deeply informed by the spirit of the blues, but in their songs the sexual/religious tension was even more pronounced. In Hank Williams’ I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow (recorded by Dylan in the Freewheelin’ sessions and later performed by him in the 1990s) the narrator sits in his prison cell listening to the train whistle blow outside, revelling in his own sense of shame. As with Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues, the prison setting itself works as a kind of metaphor for the sexual and emotional repression imposed on them by conventional religion. The fact that both singers are clearly sincere in their religious beliefs only adds to the poignancy of their plight. They sincerely want to be free, but the fact that they genuinely seem to believe that they actually deserve their fate only makes the songs more painfully heartbreaking.

          Duquesne Whistle is a successor in its way to these two earlier songs. Folsom Prison Blues ends with the singer telling us that if only he could be freed from his prison …I'd let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away… This in itself is a reference to the Williams song. In the second line of every verse, Dylan describes the Duquesne Whistle similarly, as a spirit of freedom, a wind that is blowing away various repressions. At first it is …blowin’ like it’s gonna sweep my world away… In the penultimate verse, the whistle is …blowin’ like it’s gonna blow my blues away… This is a direct reference to the Cash song, and thus to the Williams song before it, and to all the older blues songs that inspired both singers. Yet Duquesne Whistle is not a song of anguish. The singer is certainly not trapped in sexual repression. Far from it, in fact. The scenario is that of an older man who is pursuing a vigorous sexual relationship with a younger woman. … I wake up every morning with that woman in my bed… the narrator tells us, sounding terribly pleased with himself …everybody’s telling me she’s gone to my head… Here Dylan references both the jazz standard You Go To My Head and the archetypal blues intro…woke up this morning… (as used in Elmore James’ sly ode to masturbation Dust My Broom). Almost every line is either lifted from an old blues song or cleverly inverts established blues clichés. Dylan revels in the suggestiveness of the language. In the first verse his po-faced protestation of ‘innocence’: You say I’m a gambler/ You say I’m a pimp/ But I ain’t either one… directly echoes Big Joe Turner’s line in his Playboy Blues Some people call me a pimp, some people call me a gambler, but I ain't neither one… In the second verse, the narrator’s lover is ...smiling through the fence at me… which resembles a line in the traditional song Watermelon On The Vine, popularised by bluegrass legend Bill Monroe : …see that watermelon smiling through the fence… The knowing line You old rascal, I know exactly where you're going… echoes the song You Rascal You which was performed by Cab Calloway and later by Louis Armstrong : …When you dead in your grave, No more women will you crave, I'll be glad when you dead, you rascal, you!... Dylan twists all these lines around, playing heavily on their suggestiveness. For good measure, there are a couple of literary allusions thrown in. The narrator’s lover is …blowin’ like she’s at my chamber door… playfully referencing Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven (another ‘song’ which uses dark sexual metaphors) while the line …the lights of my native land are glowin’  in the final verse echoes Ovid in The Art Of Love (which Dylan declared he was ‘studying’ in Modern Times’ opening track Thunder On The Mountain). 

          At the beginning of each verse, the narrator implores us to listen to the ‘Duquesne whistle’. The name Duquesne (pronounced ‘doo-cain’) refers to the town of Fort Duquesne in Pennsylvania, but the song makes a direct reference to the Duquesne train route, which ran through America’s industrial heartland, from New York to Pittsburgh, from the 1930s to the 1950s. Carbondale, which is also referred to in the first verse, is another industrial town in Pennsylvania. The main reason for using these names seems to be to convey the idea that the train in the song, like the narrator, is ‘of a certain vintage’. As Dylan sings at the end of the first verse … Sounds like it’s on its final run…  At the end of the second verse the train whistle is …blowin’ like it ain’t gonna blow no more… Later, more explicitly, the whistle is …blowing like it's gonna kill me dead…  On one level, the train is a metaphor for the narrator’s sexual prowess. He is an old man, and this may be his final fling, but he’s sure gonna go out with a bang, as you might say. Yet Dylan turns all this around by also identifying the train whistle with his young female lover. In the second verse, the train whistle is …blowin’ like she’s never blowed before… and so now becomes explicitly female. She appears at his ‘chamber door’ positively panting with lust: …blue light blinking, red light glowing… Using a particularly ‘Dylanesque’ technique (itself suggested by the ambiguity of patterns of reference in many old blues songs) Dylan switches his mode of address (through his use of personal pronouns) here from ‘she’ to ‘you’. Now he addresses his lover directly, identifying her clearly as the source of his sexual rejuvenation: …You're the only thing alive that keeps me going/ You're like a time-bomb in my heart… The suggestion seems to be that the young lover’s sexual energy may be so ‘explosive’ that it may be the end of him. This is typical of the self deprecating, almost grateful tone of the narration here, which may well be influenced by the many late period Leonard Cohen songs such as I’m Your Man in which the ageing narrator appears to be begging young women for their favours, in a way that is rather humorously seductive. The combination of voice and music here underlines this perfectly, with Dylan’s quite deliberately cracked and gravelly ‘aged’ voice contrasting against the sprightly ‘jitterbug’ dance rhythms the band is playing.

  Dylan follows the reference to the ‘time bomb’ with perhaps the song’s most strikingly surprising lines: …I can hear a sweet voice gently calling/Must be the mother of our Lord… The reference to death is quite explicit here, yet in the first line we might imagine he is referring to his lover who, however, is pointedly not a virgin. The narrator’s sudden switch into a kind of jokey faux-religiosity is, however, handled with the kind of light irony that permeates the song. When Dylan sings …blowin’ like my woman’s on board… we are reassured that this sudden lapse into his ‘conscience’ has not deflected him from his lustful pursuit of the girl. This is further emphasized by the line in the next verse, which is surely the funniest line in the song: You old rascal, I know exactly where you're going/ I'll lead you there myself at the break of day… Here, which the narrator actually seems to be addressing his own penis! In the final verse, the line …I wonder if that old oak tree’s still standing… (itself a reference to the country standard The Green Green Grass of Home, in which the narrator’s fantasy of returning home is finally undercut by the revelation that he is in fact a condemned man waiting to be executed) is another playful sexual illusion, in which the narrator again plays the aged roué.


        In Modern TimesSpirit On The Water Dylan had deliberately teased his audience with the lines .. You think I’m over the hill, you think I’m past my prime/ Let me see what you got/ We can have a whompin’ good time… This is a line which often draws cheers from the crowd at Dylan’s live shows, allowing them to acknowledge that, despite his advancing years, Dylan is still functioning as a highly creative and challenging artist. Here, as a way of introducing us to the world of Tempest, he expands this concept into an entire song. The album contains many references to death, but its introductory song cheerfully raises a finger to death. Co-written with former Grateful Dead lyricist (as was most of the material on Together Through Life) Duquesne Whistle displays the lyrical precision and dexterity of many of the previous album’s songs, but adds a lightness of touch that is skillfully deceptive. Dylan carefully leads us astray in this way. In fact the album’s songs will successively descend into greater and greater darkness, displaying a kind of Poe-like relish in doing so. Here Dylan throws a time bomb at us, which is ready to explode. In no uncertain terms, it declares that, despite his advancing years, this artist is still cooly, articulately and often quite venomously, raging against the dying of the light.
Monday, 28 December 2015 19:30:39 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [1]  | 

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