Friday, April 27, 2007

Bringing It All Back Home... Side One

Bob Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was his first masterpiece; a record that, over forty records later, still stands as one of his best works. That record was followed by the dour and dated The Times They Are A-Changing, an album of Dylan, posing as a Dorothea Lang photo on the front, trying on the folk-protest “voice of his generation” crown and quickly finding it too binding, too restrictive.

His fourth album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, simultaneously benefits and suffers from being tossed off in one marathon wine-fueled session. The looseness that engenders helps, especially in light of the uptight album it follows. But ultimately the record serves a transitional role in Dylan’s catalog, connecting his earlier Woody Guthrie-rooted persona to the burst of creative energy that would follow.

And I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the enormity of that burst. It is the pop music equivalent of a star going nova. It was like looking at the energy released when the song writing atom was split for the first time. It was the equivalent of the Big Bang for all popular songwriting that came after. Dylan’s fifth album would start a chain reaction that would produce, not just the often described 1965-1966 trilogy of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde, but also The Basement Tapes and John Wesley Harding, a series of five albums (7 discs) of museum quality work.

As I think about this e.e. cummings shows up in my mind, and a day-dreamed image of a 1965 Bob riding

a watersmooth-silver stallion

and breaking onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat


he was a handsome man

I’ve always thought the first side of Bringing It All Back Home, instead of “Side 1" right on the label and jacket should be labeled “It used to go like that, now it goes like this.”

“Subterranean Homesick Blues” With one foot in the proto-hip-hop lyrics of Chuck Berry and another in Public Enemy and a third (OK, so he's a tripod) in some sort of mutant blues/rockabilly there’s no first song side one of any other record I can think of that had a greater immediate visceral impact.

And it was the single!

In April 1965 this was streaming audio pushing its way out of AM car radios. I remember cars pulled over to the side of the road, people getting out, standing around, and looking up in the skies for the saucers.

There is a word that I can’t quite recall at the moment, something similar to kinesthesia, that has to do with the physical pleasure of speech ("rubber baby buggy bumpers, rubber baby….") and whatever that is, it goes to 11 in this song. It was fun to try and sing it in 1965 and remains fun in 2006. It’s impossible to hear it without recalling the proto-music video with the cue cards in the alley. The pleasure comes from the rhymes themselves more than from any specific meaning here. It’s tinged with the same surrealism that was seen in little glimpses on Freewheelin’ and gets turned up full blast on the next two records. It reminds me of the moment when Hemmingway figured out how to write dialogue in that thoroughly unique voice, or when Hendrix figured out how to control feedback and distortion. It’s a song that could be released tomorrow and be utterly contemporary. It is simply amazing.

The contrast of the frenetic character of the opener to “She Belongs to Me” introduces the hard/soft/hard/soft textural rhythm that ping-pongs through the first five tracks. Dylan’s new found surrealism works in both contexts. “She can take the dark out of the night time and paint the daytime black.” “She’s a hypnotist collector, you are a walking antique.” “For Halloween get her a trumpet, for Christmas, get a big drum.”

This is essential to understanding Dylan from this point on: it is NOT that these lines don’t “mean anything,” it’s that they don’t mean any ONE thing. It’s what poetry would look like at the quantum level where all solid matter becomes a blur, a vibration. Meaning doesn’t so much disintegrate as it becomes relative, just like Einstein predicted.

“Maggie’s Farm” is almost as up tempo and rocked-out as “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” It is this blend of surrealistic word-play with older, traditional musical form that grabs a hold of you here. The pleasure for me is in the contrast of the utterly alien with the very familiar; and he tells us right upfront in the very first verse “I got a head full of ideas/that are drivin' me insane.” The song itself is not nearly as clever as “Subterranean Homesick Blues”; it’s just a litany of complaints regarding each member of Maggie’s family. The power here is in the placement on the record. Using “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as the opener, Dylan feints with “She Belongs to Me” and then goes upside your head again with the agro-electricity of “Maggie’s Farm.”

“Love Minus Zero/No Limit” extends Dylan’s language play into his song titles, and what a song! I think it may be the best pure “love song” of his catalog. Four verses, no chorus or “middle eight” in sight – a technique that’s almost trance-inducing in his longer songs. The first and last verses are the most clear-headed. His love “speaks like silence” “is true like ice, like fire” “laughs like the flowers” can’t be bought with valentines. In the end, he uses the image of the most fragile thing, a bird with a broken wing. But those middle two verses… wow. You can find the seeds of Paul Simon’s career in, “In the dime stores and bus stations / People talk of situations / Read books, repeat quotations /Draw conclusions on the wall.” And that third verse just puts pedal to the metal: “The cloak and dagger dangles/Madams light the candles/In ceremonies of the horsemen/Even the pawn must hold a grudge/Statues made of match sticks/Crumble into one another/My love winks, she does not bother/She knows too much to argue or to judge.”

How thick does someone need to be to say that this is nothing but meaningless babble? At the same time, approaching it as if there’s a code that needs to be broken is just as thick an approach. The language is glorious; I let it wash over me.

Listening to “Outlaw Blues” always makes me think of Captain Beefheart’s avant-garde take on Howlin’ Wolf. I have a long-running fantasy of making a film about Jesse James and the period of Civil War reconstruction. At the end the credits roll over Bob Dylan singing the old folk song “Jesse James.” Even though Springsteen just recorded it, I haven’t altered my daydream one bit. I hear it in the film in my head and it sounds a lot like Bob singing “Dixie” in Masked & Anonymous. “That dirty little coward, who shot Mister Howard, and laid Jesse James in his grave.” Robert Ford shot Jesse from behind as he hung a picture frame in the only case on record of a state ordering the assassination of one of its citizens. My point here is simply that during this amazing 1965-66 run it sometimes seems that EVERY Dylan song can be opened like a box in a box in a box in a box and the meaning gushes out in waves.

“On the Road Again” and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” are the last two pieces on the “It used to go like that, now it goes like this” album's first side. The opening fit of laughter from Bob & his producer at the failure of the entire band to come in at the start of the last song is perfect, like a small sticker with instructions on how to enjoy this music: listen, laugh, repeat.

As I listen I’m thinking more and more about this odd blend of surrealism and country/folk/blues/rockabilly and thinking that this is what side one of Bringing It All Back Home is all about. A coming out party for Dylan’s new medium – like traditional oil paintings done on canvases of corduroy and cereal boxes, old sandals and finger puppets. The album’s title - Bringing It All Back Home – suggests that appeal to the traditional, without anything more than the ominous look of the front cover photo to hint at just what “all” might entail.

Coming up… side two.


mike said...

i wish i had my cd's with me at work. i really want to listen to that album now.

Stan Denski said...

I don't listen to this that often as it's long been burned into my brain's hard drive, but I went to the remastered CD of it and man... they did a helluva job. That sounds phenomenal; not different from the original vinyl - the problem with lots of CDs - but like the best LP version played on a great system. Every new listen rewards with new insights. Look for side 2 posted here in a couple days.

sealy said...

AS usual it's enjoyable to read your musings. This piece really nailed the power of this stunning disc. Looking forward to the epic side2.

CastaicRay said...

The verse, "The wind howls like a hammer/ The night blows cold and rainy" is conspicuous by its absence. My wife has always insisted that a hammer doesn't howl, even metaphorically.
"You've never, literally, heard the howl of a hammer?"
"A hammer doesn't howl! That's silly!"
Where do you find a heavy anvil and a hammer heavy enough to hold a tune when you're in your sixties?
"It's not that important. Just drop it!"
That's how women wear you down. They wear you down slowly; winning by attrition - forcing you to look like a fool for knowing what they refuse to believe.

Stan Denski said...

Your comment reminds me of something Dave Van Ronk wrote in his memoir "The Mayor of MacDougal Street." He criticized "All Along the Watchtower" because a watchtower isn't something you can ride "along." He made a big deal of it and, I love Dave and I loved his book, but it just misses the point.