Monday, October 12, 2009

Bob Dylan: Last Man Standing

As part of my project to create a "greatest hits" CD for my fortieth birthday, I listened to a few of my CDs by Bob Dylan. The most recent one I have is Time Out of Mind. I don't know that I'd call this a great CD, but it has some truly great songs. And Dylan continues even now to produce excellent material.

The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan were the great musical forces of my adolescence and early adulthood. They were huge influences and joys in my life. But I rarely listen to the Beatles now, and I don't respond to their songs anymore the way I used to. I still like vintage Stones, but they too are a relic in that they no longer produce new music that excites me.

Dylan, however, remains a "living" artist to me. He still has lessons to tell and stories to teach. Even his old stuff yields rewards. An under-appreciated gem like "Bob Dylan's Dream," from 1963's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, retains a rawness that continues to speak to me. So Dylan is the last man standing, the one artist of my youth who still has relevance.

My first Dylan record was Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits. I had high expectations because in my reading everyone seemed to talk so admirably of him. Most of my books were about the Beatles, and they clearly saw Dylan as a great songwriter and a dominant intellect. So when I put on the record and heard the first track, "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35," I thought it was a joke. That voice of Dylan's: was that his real voice? That raw, acoustic sound which was so ragged and poor compared to the studio polish of the Beatles: was this the stuff that drew everyone's admiration?

I went through the other cuts that first time, from "Blowin' in the Wind" to "Like a Rolling Stone." I don't think I liked it all very much, but I didn't dislike it. Some of the songs had neat hooks, like "Just Like a Woman" and "It Ain't Me, Babe." So I continued to listen and to be intrigued by that voice, that unpretty voice. That ever-biting, surprisingly malleable, and ultimately perfect voice.

At 16, I was an unabashed Dylan fan when no one else in my peer group was. I took some grief for this but I didn't care. I knew Dylan was saying things that were better than Rush, R.E.M, Van Halen, and even U2. Here, for example, is the opening to the Prufrock-ian "Ballad of a Thin Man":
You walk into the room
With your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked
And you say, "Who is that man?"
You try so hard
But you don't understand
Just what you'll say
When you get home.

Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?
Dylan could be positively Shakespearean in his wordplay, as in "Highway 61 Revisited":
Now the fifth daughter on the twelfth night
Told the first father that things weren't right
My complexion she said is much too white
He said come here and step into the light he says hmm you're right
Let me tell the second mother this has been done
But the second mother was with the seventh son
And they were both out on Highway 61.
Like no one else, Dylan put conversation and drama in songs. In "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest," the dialogue stacks questions and misunderstandings and establishes a vision of the mythic American west as a place of desolation and self-inflicted violence:
Well, Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,
They were the best of friends.
So when Frankie Lee needed money one day,
Judas quickly pulled out a roll of tens
And placed them on a footstool
Just above the plotted plain,
Sayin', "Take your pick, Frankie Boy,
My loss will be your gain."

Well, Frankie Lee, he sat right down
And put his fingers to his chin,
But with the cold eyes of Judas on him,
His head began to spin.
"Would ya please not stare at me like that," he said,
"It's just my foolish pride,
But sometimes a man must be alone
And this is no place to hide."

Well, Judas, he just winked and said,
"All right, I'll leave you here,
But you'd better hurry up and choose
Which of those bills you want,
Before they all disappear."
"I'm gonna start my pickin' right now,
Just tell me where you'll be."

Judas pointed down the road
And said, "Eternity!"
"Eternity?" said Frankie Lee,
With a voice as cold as ice.
"That's right," said Judas Priest, "Eternity,
Though you might call it 'Paradise.'"

"I don't call it anything,"
Said Frankie Lee with a smile.
"All right," said Judas Priest,
"I'll see you after a while."

Well, Frankie Lee, he sat back down,
Feelin' low and mean,
When just then a passing stranger
Burst upon the scene,
Saying, "Are you Frankie Lee, the gambler,
Whose father is deceased?
Well, if you are,
There's a fellow callin' you down the road
And they say his name is Priest."

"Oh, yes, he is my friend,"
Said Frankie Lee in fright,
"I do recall him very well,
In fact, he just left my sight."
"Yes, that's the one," said the stranger,
As quiet as a mouse,
"Well, my message is, he's down the road,
Stranded in a house."

Well, Frankie Lee, he panicked,
He dropped ev'rything and ran
Until he came up to the spot
Where Judas Priest did stand.
"What kind of house is this," he said,
"Where I have come to roam?"
"It's not a house," said Judas Priest,
"It's not a house . . . it's a home."

Well, Frankie Lee, he trembled,
He soon lost all control
Over ev'rything which he had made
While the mission bells did toll.
He just stood there staring
At that big house as bright as any sun,
With four and twenty windows
And a woman's face in ev'ry one.

Well, up the stairs ran Frankie Lee
With a soulful, bounding leap,
And, foaming at the mouth,
He began to make his midnight creep.
For sixteen nights and days he raved,
But on the seventeenth he burst
Into the arms of Judas Priest,
Which is where he died of thirst.

No one tried to say a thing
When they took him out in jest,
Except, of course, the little neighbor boy
Who carried him to rest.
And he just walked along, alone,
With his guilt so well concealed,
And muttered underneath his breath,
"Nothing is revealed."

Well, the moral of the story,
The moral of this song,
Is simply that one should never be
Where one does not belong.
So when you see your neighbor carryin' somethin',
Help him with his load,
And don't go mistaking Paradise
For that home across the road.
Dylan would revisit this spare (if not bleak) vision again, notably in "The Man with the Long Black Coat" from the Oh Mercy album--except perhaps by now he'd lost some optimism:
Preacher was a talkin' there's a sermon he gave,
He said every man's conscience is vile and depraved,
You cannot depend on it to be your guide
When it's you who must keep it satisfied.
It ain't easy to swallow, it sticks in the throat,
She gave her heart to the man
In the long black coat.

There are no mistakes in life some people say
It is true sometimes you can see it that way.
But people don't live or die, people just float.
She went with the man
In the long black coat.
Dylan is a modern Jeremiah. He sees how out of joint the world is and tells all of us about it. He senses the strangeness of his position as an icon. Everyone praises the prophet's words instead of heeding them. Today's Dylan just sings and doesn't take his "star" status seriously. All he can do is work his work, as he muses in "Tryin' to Get to Heaven," with its allusion to "Midnight Rambler" by the Rolling Stones:
Gonna sleep down in the parlor
And relive my dreams
I'll close my eyes and I wonder
If everything is as hollow as it seems
Some trains don't pull no gamblers
No midnight ramblers, like they did before
I been to Sugar Town, I shook the sugar down
Now I'm trying to get to heaven before they close the door.
Dylan is that performer who will go until he dies. He's a rail rider with a guitar on his back and a harmonica in his pocket. He's a scop, a troubadour, a vaudevillian. And Dylan is the most important songwriter of them all. One can get older with his songs and within their world of outlaws, strangers, and jilted lovers.

Perhaps Dylan's "suffering servant" posture ultimately wins out over the unapologetic, unrepentant rebelliousness of the Stones. If one lives, one becomes put upon and beaten back. The observing voice in Dylan is undefeated and undaunted, yet unpretentious. That voice does not refuse to warn of the storms approaching in the distance, even if no one heeds the warning.

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