Wednesday, 30 April 2008

BOB DYLAN’S SOUNDTRACK SONGS PART TWO:

WAITING FOR YOU

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Wednesday, 30 April 2008 20:51:38 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [17]  | 
Saturday, 26 April 2008

ALISON

Saturday, 26 April 2008 19:19:28 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [22]  | 
Saturday, 19 April 2008

DYLAN, THE BEATLES AND ‘A HARD DAY’S NIGHT’ PART ONE

 

INTRODUCTION

            The idea that Bob Dylan was a key influence on The Beatles is very well-known and accepted one. Dylan is often credited with opening The Beatles’ minds to wider horizons and encouraging them by example to write more personal, meaningful lyrics. Yet most writers have approached this subject in a rather superficial and generalised way. Of course one can hear the influence of Dylan on John Lennon’s style in songs like You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away or Norwegian Wood. But Dylan’s influence worked, I believe, in more profound and complex ways than this. One of the challenges I set myself when writing Who Could Ask For More: Reclaiming The Beatles was to look more analytically at how Dylan’s song writing methods affected The Beatles’ work. One of the more surprising results of this was the discovery that Dylan had an equal if not greater effect on Paul than he did on John. After all, Dylan came to fame as a ‘storyteller’ who invented characters in his songs. The precision and economy Dylan displayed in writing songs such as The Ballad of Hollis Brown or The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll is reflected in McCartney’s narrative songs like Eleanor Rigby or For No One. In such songs the story is told in a detached way, allowing the listener to form their own conclusions.

            Although John Lennon was clearly besotted with Dylan for a while, the influence here was more on Lennon’s ‘sound’ than on his actual songwriting technique (although songs like Norwegian Wood tell stories too). From 1964 onwards the main drift of Lennon’s song writing tended towards personal revelation. This can be seen in early songs like I’m A Loser and I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party. By the time The Beatles were folding up, Lennon had reached the point of writing quite specifically about himself (in songs like The Ballad Of John and Yoko). This, of course, is something Dylan hardly ever did.  Even when Dylan wrote an apparently autobiographical song like 1976’s Sara he claimed the woman in the song was ‘the biblical Sara’, not his wife. Dylan never wrote a ‘Ballad of Bob and Sara’!

            The extract here follows on from my fictionalised account of Dylan’s famous meeting with The Beatles (READ HERE) in New York in 1964, and discusses some of the ways in which Dylan influenced The Beatles’ early music. A summary of Who Can Ask For More can be found HERE and the book is available online HERE or by clicking on the banner at the top of the page


FROM 'WHO COULD ASK FOR MORE' CHAPTER TWO

  When a young, earnest-looking Paul is interviewed on the British TV pop show Ready Steady Go in early 1964 he is asked what he thinks he will do when The Beatles have fallen from popularity. Quite straight-facedly he informs interviewer Keith Fordyce, a rather portly and distinctly square-looking dude in a dodgy check suit, that whatever happens he and John will carry on writing songs and that one day they …hope to write a musical, maybe… It’s clear that Paul (no mean purveyor of show tunes himself) is still looking at his career potential in terms of the old, ‘Tin Pan Alley’ type thinking. Despite his great love for and belief in rock and roll as a musical form, the assumption he’s clearly making is that while the life of a ‘pop sensation’ like The Beatles is bound to be short, professional songwriters can hope to have long and successful careers. And there’s no doubt that Paul and John already regarded themselves as adaptable musical craftsmen. As well as their own singles, they’d already written hit songs for Billy J. Kramer And The Dakotas, The Fourmost, Cilla Black, Peter and Gordon, The Applejacks, even The Rolling Stones. During 1963-65 it was not uncommon for there to be three or four Lennon-McCartney songs in the top twenty. A song was something that they, as professionals, could turn out in a few minutes if need be. It was a matter of technique as much as talent. After all, pop songs didn’t have to be profound or complicated or anything. And as far as John and Paul were concerned, you didn’t even need to be able to read music to write them. All you had to do was knock about a bit on your guitars, maybe sling a few unusual chord changes in. And you certainly didn’t need to be Shakespeare to write lyrics. You just started off with some typical boy-girl situation. Or maybe some love-triangle type thing like in She Loves You, get a bit of a different slant on it. The kids didn’t want anything too complicated anyway. …The birds in the sky will be sad and lonely/When they know that I’ve lost my one and only… chirps Billy J. Kramer on the rather delightfully innocent Bad To Me, one of four top ten singles John and Paul wrote for their fellow Liverpudlian and Epstein protégée. …So let it rain/What do I care/Deep in your heart I’ll still be there… warbles Cavern coat-check girl Cilla Black in the melodramatic tearjerker Love Of The Loved. All John and Paul had to do, it seemed, was keep on knocking ‘em out.

         As it transpired, however, John and Paul were never to write that ‘musical’ (unless their bizarre ‘psychedelic home movie’ Magical Mystery Tour qualifies as such). When Paul was speaking, rock’n’roll itself was but a small branch of what was still popularly known as ‘showbiz’, an international entertainment industry centred in the US, and in New York and Hollywood in particular, and dedicated as much as possible to ‘wholesome’, bland, unthreatening fare. That was what, it seemed, kept the dollars safely rolling in. Adopting showbiz conventions allowed artists to keep what later became known as the ‘moral majority’ - the mass of religious, conservative middle class America - at bay. ‘Showbiz’ was the behemoth that had sucked The Beatles’ hero Elvis Presley dry of the angry, leather-clad smouldering youthful energy he had once oozed and had turned him into a dumb ‘B’ movie hero, a piece of soggy, undercooked Hollywood meat. The Beatles had already laid a number of concessions at the feet of the beast. The identical suits, the stage bows, the dutiful waving at fans, the appearance in front of the Queen Mum, their apparently happy participation in ‘variety’ stage and TV shows, their ‘cute’ boy-next door personas that those Yanks loved so much, were all signs that they were sailing safely towards a career as ‘all round entertainers’. The showbiz establishment drooled and slavered over them, anxious to incorporate them. Yet, by the epochal year of 1967, a remarkable change had taken place. Rather than cheerfully engaging themselves in fabricating pleasantries, rock musicians were now expected not only to write their own songs but to pour their souls out in poetic expressions of a personalised artistic consciousness or to ‘blow their listeners’ minds’ with new sounds that had surely only been heard before in interstellar space. Where guitars had once been tunefully swung in unison, they were now vibrating with feedback or being ritually incinerated. Rock music had suddenly, unexpectedly, become an art form which, like surrealism in the 1900s or Dadaism in the 1920s, was at the cutting edge of contemporary culture. It had sucked in the influences of modern art, the avant garde, the beat poets, Eastern mystics and gurus, and had rapidly spewed them out again at ear-shattering volume. In this, the decade where the world had almost ended in a conflagration of fire and deadly, invisible rays, rock music had adopted a language of suitably apocalyptic noise. And Tin Pan Alley was on the run.

         Two factors in particular had made this sudden revolution possible. One was the musical collision of the most influential popular songwriter/performers of the ‘60s (and by extension, of the late twentieth century), The Beatles and Bob Dylan. The other was the impact of the new kinds of drugs - all illegal or about to become illegal - that had rapidly spread in popularity during those years, and which were so radically to alter the perceptive mindsets of both the performers and their audiences. The most important of these were marijuana and LSD. Thus the story that when The Beatles first met Bob Dylan he turned them on to marijuana (‘proper’ marijuana, that is, rather than whatever inferior type of ‘shit’ John may have tried before) may appear to be apocryphal. However, although the above account is of course highly embellished, the story is - as the main participants have themselves testified - essentially true. On that day the ‘educated’, bohemian, middle class world of ‘folk’ (which Dylan himself had so dramatically connected to the American literary mainstream) and the commercial, working class world of teenage ‘pop’, which had seemed so far apart from each other, collided dramatically. The moment Dylan passed over that doobie, the cultural revolution of the sixties was kick-started into life. Marijuana’s effects were radically different to those of alcohol and speed, which had been The Beatles’ main indulgences thus far. First of all, it slowed the world down around you. It made everything seem interesting. Weird thoughts like you’d never dreamed of before kept occurring to you, about, say… the meaning of life, or the significance of the colour of your socks... It made you aware of what was going on in bits of your brain you’d never even known were there before, although now and again it might make you just a little paranoid. And it seemed to encourage a kind of ‘lateral thinking’ that in some way rewired your brain circuits and helped you make mental connections you’d never thought possible. Of course, if you were so disposed you could just smoke yourself into oblivion, scramble your brains, blot out everything... But if you used it creatively, it might, as jazz musicians had long known, help to stimulate spontaneous and rich creativity. The Beatles really went for it. For the next few years, they (along with millions of others) were stoned pretty much all of the time

         Within a year or so from this meeting, The Beatles had began exploring drug-influenced, Dylanesque wordplay in songs like You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, Day Tripper and Norwegian Wood while Dylan had produced surreal, poetic rock’n’roll records like Subterranean Homesick Blues, Highway 61 Revisited and Like A Rolling Stone and had shocked the middle class ‘folkie’ audience at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival by appearing backed by a noisy, raucous, rock and roll band. Meanwhile, The Byrds had taken their rock version of Dylan’s poetic ‘mind trip’ Mr. Tambourine Man to the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Kinks were all having hits with songs featuring sharp, streetwise social commentary. …Can’t be a man because he doesn’t smoke/The same cigarettes as me… runs the satirical Stones classic Satisfaction. …Hope I die before I get old!…cries the teenage antihero of The Who’s My Generation. The Beatles and their contemporaries now wanted to be poets and philosophers rather than mere ‘craftsmen’, while Dylan now wanted to be a rock star rather than a folk singer. When he’d first heard I Want To Hold Your Hand Dylan immediately sensed that the energetic, rebellious spirit of the original ’50s rock’n’roll that had so inspired him as a teenager had been dramatically revived. In a way that surprised and shocked many of his bohemian intellectual contemporaries (who generally turned their noses up at ‘pop groups’ like The Beatles, regarding them as mindless teen fodder), he embraced the vitality of The Beatles’ music immediately, professing a great admiration for the chord changes in their songs, their vocal harmonies and the warmth and intimacy of their sound. 

         By the time they met Dylan, The Beatles were already pretty much in awe of him. When they heard The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), his second album and the one on which his talent as a songwriter really first emerged, they were totally (as they might have expressed it a year or so later) ‘blown away’. His voice was a shock at first. It was jarring, abrasive, harsh - decidedly not nice…you certainly couldn’t just have him playing in the background. You had to either turn him up or switch him off. Some people thought he was a genius, others screamed in horror at that screechy adenoidal racket that came out of his mouth. You took your choice. But it was hard to deny that Dylan wrote amazing poetry, in songs that might be up to ten minutes long. He wrote about racism and war and social injustice and what it was like to be young in a world gone fucking mad …You’ve thrown the worst fear… he sneered …that can ever be hurled/Fear to bring children into the world… How could you top that? What he was writing was light years away from I Want To Hold Your Hand or even Heartbreak Hotel but, as The Beatles stared out the window of that Paris hotel, replaying that LP over and over again, they realised that somehow he was expressing exactly how they felt. But Dylan, at this point, was nothing like them. First of all, he was a folk singer. He didn’t have a band, just an acoustic guitar and a harmonica. He didn’t have anyone doing harmonies, or anything like that. His songs were mainly based on ancient folk ballads, and he often avoided choruses, middle-eights and other basic songwriting tools. Yet there was something about his attitude that they could immediately relate to, something very edgy and …rock’n’ roll… 

         A few weeks after their discovery of Dylan in Paris, The Beatles found themselves in Abbey Road studios, recording material for the soundtrack album for their first film. Already, Dylan’s influence can be heard. On the three albums they made between March 1964 and May 1965: A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles For Sale and Help!, The Beatles’ sound comes closer and closer to what they had heard on Freewheelin’. They had occasionally used acoustic guitars before on the earlier records but this had usually been on their non-rock’n’roll ‘cabaret turns’ like A Taste of Honey or Till There Was You. Now they begin to experiment with them more and more, using them to create softer sonic textures, so that the words they were singing could seem invested with more sensitivity. Rather than concentrating on finding ways to ‘thrill’ their listeners, as they had done so dramatically and successfully in their stage act and in their early ‘ecstatic’ songs, their songwriting begins to shift towards the expression of ‘authentic’ emotions. Increasingly, John in particular is frequently to be found playing acoustic rather than electric rhythm guitar. In fact, by the time of Help! the use of acoustic guitars has become the norm on most of John and Paul’s original songs. Two of Help!’s most memorable tracks, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away and Yesterday, dispense with the guitar-bass-drums format completely. On both these songs, The Beatles’ distinctive vocal harmonies, which more than anything else had defined their sound, are also abandoned. The emphasis is now on presenting a truthful and individual voice. They did not (as yet) try to emulate Dylan’s political and generational statements or imitate his complex use of imagery and metaphor in their lyric writing. But what Dylan (and their experience of marijuana) had shown them was that a songwriter should be dedicated to expressing his own inner truths, even if they weren’t really that pleasant or easy to deal with. Over the next few years Dylan’s example was to inspire a whole generation of ‘confessional’ singer-songwriters such as Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Paul Simon, Tim Buckley, Buffy Sainte-Marie, James Taylor, Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, David Bowie, Laura Nyro, Melanie and many others; creating in effect an entire genre in which music and literature met. What makes these artists distinctive is not that they sound like Dylan - most of his musical imitators fell by the wayside - but that they sound like themselves. 

  It is worth mentioning here that the early Dylan wrote - in addition to his political and satirical material - what may be called ‘love songs’, although perhaps ‘songs dissecting relationships’ would be a more accurate description. Two examples from his second and third albums are Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right and One Too Many Mornings, where he demonstrates eloquently that a ‘love song’ can be emotionally complex enough to go beyond the sense of sentimental or lustful longing that characterises the conventionalised approach to the form. In both cases the narrator is saying goodbye to the love-object in a tone of philosophical resignation. Rather than pleading with the girl, or wallowing self-indulgently in ‘misery’, the protagonists of the songs accept that what two people want out of a relationship may actually be very different. …I gave her my heart…he sings in Don’t Think Twice …but she wanted my soul…In One Too Many Mornings he concedes that …you’re right from your side/And I’m right from mine… The narrator of Don’t Think Twice even accepts that the affair was not really that important to him: …You coulda done better but I don’t mind… His fourth album Another Side of Bob Dylan, released in 1964 (in between A Hard Day’s Night and Beatles For Sale) was his farewell to political ‘protest’ singing and focused mainly on such ‘relationship’ songs, the most celebrated of which, It Ain’t Me, Babe, is a song of explicit rejection of a lover’s idealisation of him. The song’s refrain …No, No, No…has often been seen as a downbeat answer to The Beatles’ famous cry of  Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!…

         It would, however, take some time for The Beatles’ songwriting style to absorb such a radically different influence. Almost all of their original compositions on their three ‘transitional’ albums are still based on a lyrical formula in which the narrator directly addresses (or, less frequently, reports the details of an assignation with) a female love-object who is never named. However, this approach needs to be seen primarily as a framing device for their songs. Their music always had, from their first recordings, certain qualities which transcended the simplicity of their lyrics. But prior to their encounter with Dylan’s music, they had viewed words largely as functional parts of the musical structures they were creating. In their ‘ecstatic’ songs the ‘innocent’ nature of the lyrics acted, as we have seen in the previous chapter, as a kind of ‘disguise’ for the expressively sexual nature of the performances. Above all, their success was based on the way their songs radiated a sense of joy at being alive. Such an approach was clearly at odds with the kind of cool detachment, political sensibility and wry understanding of the dynamics of relationships that they heard in Dylan’s work. Yet hearing Dylan had shifted the earth’s axis for them. They desperately yearned to be that cool… Elements of Dylanesque objectivity are already hinted at on a number of the songs on A Hard Day’s Night. This is less true of the songs especially written for the film that make up side one of the album, but even these (with their prominent acoustic guitars) are influenced by his ‘sound’.

         I Should Have Known Better, I’m Happy Just To Dance With You and Tell Me Why are three charmingly ‘professional’ songs written for the soundtrack with the teenage audience in mind. All three actually feature as ‘live’ performances in the film. Musically they are all characterised by the great audacity and exuberance The Beatles specialised in, and they fit well with the film’s bright, cheerful tone. I Should Have Known Better carries a faint sense of regret, but chugs along merrily, showcasing a dextrous vocal performance by John, who features on breezy harmonica. I’m Happy Just To Dance With You, written by John for George, fits well with George’s naive ‘kid brother’ persona and, like the earlier Do You Want To Know A Secret (from Please Please Me) conveys an appealing, humble innocence. Tell Me Why is supposedly about a lover who has told lies to the singer, but very little regret or remorse is conveyed by the song, to which George and Paul contribute enthusiastically breathless backing vocals. Along with the supposedly sad but actually pretty jovial-sounding I’ll Cry Instead (not featured in the film), these songs make light of the emotional troubles they supposedly recount. There is little of Dylan’s emotional realism here, although the presence of acoustic guitars successfully creates a far more introspective feeling than had been present on the raw With The Beatles album. These songs also work fairly hard at ‘telling a story’ and occasionally attempt some rather Dylanesque self-examination. …I got a chip on my shoulders bigger than my feet… John confesses rather chirpily in I’ll Cry Instead. Even such a simple, direct song as I Should Have Known Better is rather self-deprecatingly honest.

         These cheery rockers are balanced by two harmonically ambitious ballads, John’s If I Fell and Paul’s And I Love Her. Both feature clichéd lyrics, but somehow manage to seem sincere in the emotions they convey. If I Fell begins to hint at a ‘confessional’ style, with John and Paul’s harmonies on …I couldn’t stand the pain…being highly affecting. And I Love Her demonstrates Paul’s innate talent for composing very beautiful original melodies, even if the lyrics are rather jarringly twee. There is some attempt at natural imagery …Bright are the stars that shine/Dark is the sky… and the song has a certain unspoken regretful tone, even if Paul takes refuge in clichés about love that will ‘never die’. Similarly, John’s ‘revelation’ in If I Fell that he has discovered that love is about more than …just holding hands… while suggesting some emotional progression from the simplicities of I Want To Hold Your Hand, is hardly original or profound. Yet both songs represent attempts to take a more emotionally realistic stance, and both are led by acoustic guitars, with And I Love Her featuring a particularly attractive ‘Spanish’ flavoured acoustic melody. Even these ‘sad’ songs radiate a kind of sunny, youthful optimism, a bright, dizzy engagement with the world. The dynamic Any Time At All, which opens Side Two, is perhaps their most open and generous song, suggesting that The Beatles’ music is a kind of panacea, a way of cheering yourself up you can tune into any time you want. The two singles that open and close Side One, A Hard Day’s Night and Can’t Buy Me Love, frame this perspective eloquently; the first through its blunt sexuality and the second through its irrepressible exuberance.

         The A Hard Day’s Night album is far more than a mere soundtrack to the movie. Like the film, it presents the group at the height of their youthful self-confidence, at a moment when the pressures of fame have yet to become overbearing. It is the last Beatles album in which the zesty bravado that had fuelled their rise to fame remains a real motivating force. Never again would The Beatles sound so ‘up’. The album drives relentlessly through a number of moods, some more convincing than others, but it has an admirable unity of purpose. Already the coyness of much of With The Beatles and Please Please Me is gone, replaced by a remarkable degree of musical self-assurance. The group, now working smoothly and intuitively with their inspired producer George Martin, is already effectively manipulating recording studio technology to give considerable depth and variety to their material. The groundbreaking use of 12-string acoustic guitars, with their distinctive ‘chiming’ sound was soon to inspire and provide a musical template for The Byrds, the first influential ‘post-Beatles’ rock group to emerge on the US pop scene in late 1964. The Byrds’ style was an amalgam of Dylan-influenced folk music with three-part Beatles style harmonies and a rock beat. In itself it was a blueprint for the whole ‘West Coast sound’ typified by Jefferson Airplane, Love, Grateful Dead, Spirit and Quicksilver Messenger Service, which was to provide the essential soundtrack to the rise of the hippie subculture in California from 1965 onwards. In many ways the Hard Day’s Night album is the triumphant climax of the early Beatles’ style. It captures them in the full flower of their world-shaking optimism. While the lyrics of their songs may still say very little, the untamed spirit of their music is always inspiring.

          On the last four songs on Side Two, however, The Beatles are already showing signs of moving into darker, more emotionally complex territory. Paul’s Things We Said Today, which begins with, and is mainly focused on, a rather haunting acoustic guitar riff, is based, like All My Loving, around the idea of the narrator missing a lover who has to go away. But there is more of a sense of both physical and emotional distance here, with the romantic clichés now being reported at second hand …You say you’ll be mine girl/Till the end of time… The song is much ‘tougher’ than And I Love Her, rising as it does into rhythmic passages which seem to suggest a certain inner turmoil, tension and uncertainty. We get the sense that the singer is reassuring himself that ‘everything will be OK’ while continually looking back to a time of emotional honesty which has passed. Much of this is kept ambiguous, but the song’s shifting tone suggests a more ‘adult’ recognition of the way in which time and circumstances can pull lovers apart. Things We Said Today is the first Beatles song to focus on the passage of time as a theme, and it provides a strong hint of the greater maturity to come. I’ll Be Back, the closing number on the album, is another ‘confessional’ acoustic-led duet between John and Paul in which the narrator suggests that the emotional games he has been playing with his lover have backfired, leaving him rueful but powerless to change things. …This time… he tries to reassure her …I will try to show that I’m/not trying to pretend…but it’s hard to believe that she’ll fall for his protestations. John’s vocal has a regretful tone, but he sounds (like Dylan in Don’t Think Twice) philosophical, rather than truly sad. His pronunciation of …but I got a big surprise…is delivered with a sudden ‘uplift’ which suggests he understands that he has deserved his comeuppance. Paul’s harmony singing supplies a more consistently regretful tone, which gives the song a challenging emotional resonance.

         The two songs that precede I’ll Be Back are less ‘Dylanesque’, though both also attempt to provide a sense of ‘distance’ in their narrative. John adopts a particular type of rather arrogant narrative voice, attempting to apply the sense of moral ambiguity which characterised Money on the previous album to his own songs. Here The Beatles once again show their awareness of contemporary American rhythm and blues and soul music. Both When I Get Home and You Can’t Do That are heavily influenced by the tough contemporary soul sound then being developed by the Stax record label’s house ‘session band’ Booker T. and The MG’s. When I Get Home has a pronounced staccato rhythm which is very appropriate for the ‘macho’ tone of boastfulness that its narrator adopts. You Can’t Do That is a little slower and more lugubrious in its tone, but both songs feature fearsomely committed vocals by John. When I Get Home begins with a lustful cry of …Whoooho-hi!…and seems, at first, to have a similar theme to A Hard Day’s Night, with the singer beginning by boasting of what will happen when he gets home to his ‘baby’. Again we are clearly in adult territory here, as the lovers are obviously married or cohabiting. But after another lustful cry leads us into the second verse, it now seems that the singer is having an affair with another girl, who he is seeking to dismiss rather cruelly …I got no time for trivialities… John sings, pronouncing the last word rather dismissively, and with some considerable relish. Later he declares that  …I got no business being here with you/this way… In the somewhat bizarre middle-eight he declares that when he gets home to his ‘baby’ he will …love her till the cows come home…an odd if certainly striking use of a cliché which is anything but romantic. The narrator of the song is clearly pretty mixed up. Certainly not a guy you would trust… In You Can’t Do That the singer is even crueller, threatening to dump his girlfriend for merely talking to another guy. He goes onto to boast of how jealous his friends were when he ‘won her love’ but seems more concerned about being publicly embarrassed by her supposed transgression than any feelings he might have for her. His only excuse is that he ‘can’t help’ such feelings. Again, the narrator is profoundly unsympathetic… a horrible chauvinist dickhead, no less…

         In such songs John is actually pursuing a technique that owes little to Dylan, who was never one for self-parodic macho boastfulness, but is playing to his own strengths by presenting himself as emotionally invulnerable and intolerant. To some extent he is imitating contemporary black male American soul singers who, like the rap artists of today, conspicuously trade in ‘over the top’ boasting. As with Money John makes himself appears so unsympathetic that we begin to wonder what he is really getting at. In such songs John is satirising himself, a supposedly happily married man who, by his own admission in later years, had numerous sexual liaisons whilst on the group’s tours. Here he adopts the tone of what literary critics would call an ‘unreliable narrator’, providing us with a ‘story’ that we need to read through. It seems clear that he is now finding the brisk optimism of The Beatles’ ‘hit formula’ rather limiting.


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 As usual I welcome any comments on this, either to my email at chris@chrisgregory.org or
in the 'Comments' box below. Thanks to all those who've written in recently. Next up is Dylan Soundtrack Songs Part Two

A summary of Who Can Ask For More can be found HERE and the book is available online HERE or by clicking on the banner at the top of the page

THIS PAGE has all the Who Coud Ask For More summaries and extracts

Check out www.expectingrain.com for up to date news on Dylan (and related artists)

Also interesting Beatles websites THE WALRUS WAS CROW  HERE
and WALRUS GUMBOOT  HERE

Lots of Beatles news at WHAT GOES ON HERE
and Beatles Radio HERE




Saturday, 19 April 2008 12:24:54 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [10]  | 
Saturday, 12 April 2008

 BOB DYLAN’S SOUNDTRACK SONGS

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

 

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

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

 

(1) THINGS HAVE CHANGED (2000)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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







 









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

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