Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Don't We All Want To Be Freewheelin'?

If there is one principle true for all great art it is that repeat visits are rewarded with new insights. This is true for the greatest paintings as it is true for the greatest films and it is true for the greatest pop records. I just relistened to this album. I’ve heard this, I can’t begin to estimate how many times in the past 4 decades or so and it offers its rewards each and every time. In Dylan’s expansive catalog I’m hard-pressed to name another record that’s actually better than this one.

Dylan's sophomore album, Freewheelin' was the follow-up to his eponymous 1962 debut, an album that sold so poorly that Dylan was nick-named "Hammond's Folly" inside Columbia Records. But where his debut presented Dylan in full Woody Guthrie mode, still making wild claims about a mythical childhood in the Southwest and being raised by wolves in the Black Hills of the Dakotas, it's on Freewheelin' that Bob Dylan finds his voice. It's here that he puts the finishing touches on his persona, adding touches of James Dean and Brando to Woody Guthrie and Ramblin' Jack.

Just like "true" Beatles fans identify themselves by denigrating Sgt. Pepper, so too is there a tendency among "true" Dylan fans to dismiss “Blowin’ in the Wind” as "overrated." But "true" fans are, when you get down to it, more often clueless idiots than not, and obsessive devotion to Bob Dylan minutia will most likely blind you to the BIG truths. That "Blowin' in the Wind" is among the greatest American songs of the 20th Century is one of those truths. I imagine it gets the short shrift now because it sounds like one of those songs, like “Amazing Grace” or "We Shall Overcome," a song that can’t possibly have an author (or a song that simply dwarfs its authorship, rendering it irrelevant). On an album of various major and minor masterpieces this really does remain the jewel in the crown.

Like many early Bob songs, “Girl of the North Country” is based on an older folk song (George Harrison based “My Sweet Lord” on “He’s So Fine” and look where it got him). It’s a timeless melody, made near-perfect by this set of lyrics; the album performance is simply sublime.

"Masters of War" has always seemed like a bit of a sore thumb here. It's Dylan's "protest songs" that are the most dated of his catalog (and the follow-up to this album, The Times They Are A-Changing, is his only dated-sounding LP from his early work). But Greil Marcus has made a strong case that the value of the song is in its emotional excess, not in its literal interpretation as “protest” song.

“Down the Highway” is Dylan playing in a classic country blues style. Not the best song here, it adds spice and variety to the record as a whole. The first album was Dylan-as-folksinger, this album is Dylan-as-Dylan and every song here is a piece in that portrait.

"Bob Dylan’s Blues" plays the essential role here of releasing some air from the profundity balloon. It also reminds me that one of the real casualties of Dylan’s post-1964 career was how his phenomenal comic abilities got lost. In 2007 it's almost impossible to imagine Dylan as a comic, but I also imagine that, in his later years, it was just as difficult to look at Chaplin and still see the Little Tramp. Remember, things change.

“A Hard Rain…” Yes, it’s based on an old Scottish ballad, but it stands there, with one foot in the 17th Century and the other in the 20th. It encompasses Kerouac, Ginsberg and the Beats and who knows how many other references I’m not well-read enough to pick up on. Dylan’s denial that the “rain” is atomic fallout shines a light on the whole problem with authorial intentionality. The songs exists apart from Bob and, set in the cold war and Cuban missile crisis, clearly includes nuclear rain at the top of its list of signifiers. It’s hard to imagine today what hearing this song in the early 60s was like. Hard as it is for a 2007 Dylan audience to imagine, people actually stopped going out for more beer and screaming “WATCHTOWER BOBBY!!!! WOOOO!” during it. People sat, dumbfounded, just stunned by it, like they must have reacted to hearing Charlie Parker for the first time, or Bill Monroe, or anything actually, genuinely NEW.

"A Hard Rain" is also the BIG BANG of what would become the singer/songwriter movement; it is the moment that redefined folk authenticity and made writing and singing original songs a requirement rather than grounds for banishment.

“Don’t Think Twice…” is AS good a song as anything else on here. It’s like a perfect miniature portrait. The album version is that rare flawless thing. It's also the sort of underhanded sly misogyny that would define Dylan's romantic relationships for the rest of his life.

“Bob Dylan’s Dream” is one of my 5 or 6 favorite Dylan songs. I like to sing it a cappella in my car (and LOUD) when I’m on the highway coming back from or on the way to a visit with my oldest and best friends. “I wish, I wish, I wish in vain. That we could sit simply in that room again. Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat, I’d give it all gladly, if our lives could be like that.” Jesus. Who wouldn't?

“Oxford Town” is the conjoined twin to “Masters of War” but not as good (it would need to call for the death of everyone in Oxford to be as good), not as excessive. The earlier “Emmett Till” is very much a superior song. The performance is lacking too. Richie Havens covers it on a very early record and it’s way stronger. The tell-tale sign of a lesser Dylan song is when someone else does it better ("All Along the Watchtower" excepted).

“Talkin’ WWIII.…” More great satire stuffed with brilliant one-liners. You get the impression that this guy would sound interesting putting in a breakfast order. Can you imagine the 2007 Bob Dylan doing something like this? I know. I can't either.

I wonder if the sequencing of these last three tracks, which result in the record closing slightly less impressively than it opens, has something to do with the last-minute juggling of tracks when 4 songs that were slated to be on the album got pulled and replaced. Those songs, good ones too, were more Bob-as-Woody and already too dated to make the 2nd LP – an indication of his off-the-scale growth rate at the time.

“Corrina, Corrina” was a revelation because no one knew or suspected that little Bobby was a rocker at heart. His piano-playing-kicked-off-the-HS-talent-show shenanigans wouldn’t come to light for decades yet. The 45 track “Mixed Up Confusion” never got air play or got around and sank from sight once he took the Folk King crown. Great song and a great version.

“Honey, Just Allow Me…” and “”I Shall Be Free” both give the suggestion of being wine-fueled studio improvs, though I have no idea how true or false that is. They’re outrageous and funny and help deflect a one-dimensional self-importance that would not have benefited the record over time.

Finally, there's the cover.

The amazing cover.

A simple photo of Bob and girlfriend walking down a winter street in the Village, it somehow manages to encompass the vague and uncertain concept of "freewheelin'" and the result is that an entire generation would long to be "freewheelin'."

To be freewheelin' seemed to have something to do with your relationship to the future. If the defining characteristic of what is now called "THE SIXTIES" was an ability to imagine a future as something other than the simple extension of the present then the sixties start here, in those boots, those jeans, that jacket.


pudman13 said...

I find myself hard pressed to disagree with the idea of this being his best album, even if I, personally, like his "rock" albums more. Maybe next you can blog the argument that LOVE & THEFT is his best?

Yonder Orphan said...

I especially enjoy your characterization of "Don't Think Twice" as indicative of his "underhanded sly misogyny." I find this lyric's backhanded absolution of his offending ex-lover to be distinctive in its sharp ambivalence: he both condemns and forgives the girl in a way that fascinates in its seamless complexity.
"Bob Dylan's Dream": pure reflective sorrow with no maudlin aftertaste.