Monday, January 7, 2013


For no reason I can fathom - I love how the brain works - this morning I was struck by how two great songs suddenly seemed related in some odd way. It had never occurred to me before, even though I have loved, and played, both songs countless times in the past forty years.

Six short verses, four lines each and, like every song on Dylan's John Wesley Harding album, no chorus. This is Dylan at his enigmatic best; the signifiers dance, whirl around as if in a strong wind, never stopping long enough for any meaning to become fixed. The greater context is, as it always is, important. There is the context of the album, stark, minimalist folk, loaded with odd religious imagery that has led some to interpret the Joker and thief as Christ on the cross speaking to Dismas, the penitent thief.

Dave Van Ronk was not a fan of the song, commenting that you cannot travel "along" a watchtower. I think Van Ronk found Dylan's dance with meaning irritating. I love Dave, always have, but where he is irritated I am more prone to exhilaration. I don't feel this way about all of Dylan, there are definitely songs in which he's just faking it, getting by. This is not one of those.

Beyond the context of the album is the context of the times, particularly important for JWH. Released at the very end, a scant few days before the end of 1967. 1967 was dominated by psychedelia, the "Summer of Love," Haight-Ashbury, Carnaby Street, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Neon flowers and paisley, elaborate album cover constructions (the Rolling Stones 3D cover, the Bee Gees red velvet) with lyric gate folds and booklets and cut out sheets and printed inner sleeves. When Dylan sings "There must be someway out of here" it is as if he is fixing an exit sign to all of that.

Released by Leonard Cohen in 1967 (though released first by Judy Collins a year earlier), "Suzanne" strikes me as a kind of bookend to "All Along the Watchtower" in its similar dance with ambiguity and meaning.

Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by
You can spend the night beside her
And you know that she's half crazy
But that's why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her
That you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer
That you've always been her lover
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you've touched her perfect body with your mind.

And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said "All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them"
But he himself was broken
Long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone
And you want to travel with him
And you want to travel blind
And you think maybe you'll trust him
For he's touched your perfect body with his mind.

Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she's touched your perfect body with her mind.

Three verses, with the middle verse about the figure of Jesus - a character we recognize - in the center of two verses about Suzanne, a character we are only now trying to understand. Here, the singer speaks to the listener about Suzanne (and Christ). In the song, it is we whose bodies are perfect, not Christ's. Christ - if he is referenced in both songs, is impotent in both. And this, for want of a better term, impotence of Christ, becomes then the perfect metaphor for the tired, world weariness of the post-psychedelic experience.

As interesting as psychedelic music is, it is almost always superficial; everything of interest skirts along the surface. But post-psychedelic music... that's another thing altogether.  More later.

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