Sunday, March 4, 2007


40 years ago: March 1967

I didn't hear any of this music until 1970, when my older brother bought this album and introduced it into the household. Fateful. Dylan would subsequently become the most important musical figure in my life. It didn't happen right away, but gradually. On this album, the song that fascinated me was "Like a Rolling Stone": I remember, in sixth grade, playing the song verse by verse, over and over again, until I got all the words right. Not just to understand them, but to memorize them. Then, the following summer, before going on the yearly week visit to the shore in Maryland, I found myself listening to "Mr. Tambourine Man," hypnotized, transported.

This album is the compendium of the various sounds of Dylan up until the motorcycle accident, after which his career went off toward country and what is called these days "roots music." Even in 1970, only four years after the latest stuff on the record, some of this music sounded incredibly dated, from a time and place one couldn't quite identify. At the time I knew nothing about the musical tradition Dylan was drawing on, and more or less reinventing through his participation; eventually I realized that some songs he wrote were sprinkled among all those traditional songs The Brothers Four sang. We had some of their albums around the house. I was never sure where they came from, I suppose my dad, who liked country, folk and "real singers" like Mario Lanza and Barbra Streisand. Dylan he abhorred. And I think my mom hated him even more.

I wasn't too sure I "liked" him either. After all, I was listening to this record at the same time that my brother's venture into heavy metal had brought the first three Black Sabbath albums into the house -- and which made me "cool" briefly in sixth grade when the resident hip kid/street tough was amazed to learn that I knew the song "Hand of Doom," knew that it was about OD'ing on heroin, and could quote it correctly from memory, but that's another story. But maybe not. That quoting from memory talent is probably what drew me to Dylan. So many words! It was clearly an act of considerable memory for him to sing the songs, much less for an adolescent to sing along, matching him word for word (not, I regret to say, note for note).

But what about the Dylan voice anyway? It's what made him the scourge of my parents' ears. Note: they hated him more than they hated heavy metal! I think it's because you could learn to ignore the repetitive riffs and the sledgehammer beat, but you can't ignore Dylan's singing. It bites into your brain, like the bird outside your window that starts screaming at dawn and won't stop. Listening to him now, after decades of familiarity with every instant of these songs, I'm always impressed by how various his voice is, how carefully he crafts the tone of the voice for each song. "Blowin' in the Wind" is meditative, almost defeated. "The Times, They Are A-Changin'" is sing-songy in that way that is most often parodied in Dylan mockers, its tempo somewhere between an anthem and a nursery rhyme. "It Ain't Me, Babe" was a song I found very difficult to listen to back then. It seemed far too naked for professional singing. I felt embarrassed for him. Even though, as I later learned, it was one of the famous Dylan "put-down" songs, it seemed incredibly sad, each "no, no, no" not defiant at all but an admission of inadequacy. I was much more comfortable with the put-downs Dylan sang once he got a rock band behind him.

"Like a Rolling Stone" is a song aimed at us all. Recently, in reviews of the film Factory Girl, about Edie Sedgwick, reviewers trotted out the old chestnut: she was "the subject" of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone." Oh, wow, that explains it! I'm quite willing to believe that every song has a catalyst, some person that makes it "necessary" to write that song (as when Dylan says, in the song "Sara," addressed to his wife: "writing 'Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands' for you"). "Rolling Stone" -- like The Stones' "Ruby Tuesday" or The Beatles' "She's Leaving Home" -- is a song that encapsulates a state of soul. I won't even say it's just "for the time" because it seems to me that "that time" occurs again and again. That every generation hits it and recognizes themselves in the song. What "Rolling Stone" does that those other examples doesn't is imbue the song's lyrics with scathing commentary rather than wistful melancholy. Sure, it could read as a put-down of Warhol Factory fodder, but, as Dylan remarked about "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," "it's a song you can sing to yourself sometimes." "Rolling Stone" is like that. The part about the mystery tramp and alibis and asking to make a deal used to floor me as, emotionally, the crux of the song and in some ways the place to stop (especially since 'the mystery tramp' -- whether I listened to the song as aimed at "me," or with Dylan as the "you" -- was death).

The third verse always seemed to me weaker than the first two and was often dropped from live performances of the song. But the fourth verse is a corker; it could offer solace to "you" in as much as "Napolean in rags," whose language so amuses, is actually the singer. "Go to him now, he calls you, you can't refuse . . . you're invisible now, you've got no secrets to conceal." If this is imagined as a loss of self, secrecy, and defensiveness through some all-including love, then fine, a positive assertion. I can imagine this being Dylan's intention, reaching out, as he does in "Love Minus Zero/No Limit," to the bird with a broken wing. But, if Napoleon is a third presence, then that trustfulness is probably naive, and this figure is another emissary from the life of serial delusions "you" is doomed to (if it is "about" Edie then Andy seems a good candidate for Napoleon here). And all the secrets are exposed because the singer, cruelly, lovingly (perhaps) has just exposed them.

I won't go on to comment on "Mr. Tambourine Man" which, because of the beach imagery at the end, long stood for that feeling of being on the edge of eternity when in front of the ocean. But a later insight into the song was when I identified Dylan as himself "the ragged clown" in the following lines, which became for me the emotional crux of the song (in a verse often left out of live performances of the song):

And if you hear vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time
It's just a ragged clown behind
I wouldn't pay it any mind
It's just a shadow you're seeing that he's chasing

--Bob Dylan, "Mr. Tambourine Man" (1965)

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

I like to play Tambourine Man without the chorus, and really slowly. It strips the song of any "anthemic" quality and emphasizes the images of the verses (which otherwise can disappear a bit behind the chorus).