Sunday, March 23, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 82):"MAMA, YOU BEEN ON MY MIND" (1964), Bob Dylan

Saturday, I saw a YSD production of Twelfth Night, directed by Jessica Holt, that was faithful and entertaining, with strong comic performances led by Gabe Levey as Malvolio and a haunting performance of the fool Feste by Daniel Reece. I was particularly touched by his rendition of the entirety of the song “The rain it raineth everyday” at the close of the play. The fact that it was his final performance as a student at the drama school may have lent more feeling to the proceedings. In any case, I’ve been feeling a bit melancholy since, even though the play ends well for those pining in love, particularly the very passionate Viola, as rendered by Carly Zien. Of course, for most of the play, Duke Orsino (Merlin Huff) pines for Olivia, delivering the immortal line, “If music be the food of love, play on.” Indeed music fuels the pining and salves the hurting, but it also stimulates the woeful self-regard of the lovelorn. There was a well-played moment where the Duke, finding himself caught up in the “dying fall” of a certain passage listens to it with pleasure that soon becomes nearly a sob that then becomes a surfeit. It’s a very Proustian moment, we might say.

One of the great lovelorn songs by my favorite electronic bard is Bob Dylan’s “Mama, You Been on My Mind.” The problem with this song, which is incredibly well-constructed, lyrically, is that Dylan never gave it a definitive performance. He taped it during the sessions for his fourth LP, you know, the album he recorded in one marathon session, and the song needed a second take and didn’t get it, more’s the pity. That version was finally released on the Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3 in 1991. That’s the one I’ll be talking about, but I’ve linked to two performances: one by Jeff Buckley, which I never heard before searching for the song online and which is a nice rendering, though you can feel Buckley straining a bit to make a torch song of it; the other is by Jack Johnson from the soundtrack to Todd Haynes’ messy Dylanesque film, I’m Not There (2007); Johnson does a pretty good rendering too, not as moody as Buckley’s and I think that’s all to the good. Rod Stewart recorded a version on his album Never a Dull Moment (1972) and good ol’ Rod manages some nice touches with the lyric but the arrangement is trying to find a way to make it a pop song. It’s not a pop song; it’s not a torch song. It’s a very hard song to sing, actually, because it’s being sung to oneself as though to the object of one’s desires.

What’s more, everyone, including Dylan, flubs some part of the lyrics. Dylan, Wikipedia tells me, has performed the song live over 200 times. I wonder if he ever sang the same exact lyrics twice. There are released recordings of him singing it in duet with Joan Baez, in 1964 and 1975, and Baez has recorded her own version, “Daddy, You Been On My Mind.” If that sounds a bit too icky, there’s good reason as we might expect to pair it with Marilyn singing “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” “Daddy” is really not the equivalent to “Mama,” at least not in Dylan’s vocabulary. Linda Ronstadt, more sensibly, recorded it as “Baby, You’ve Been On My Mind.”  Johnny Cash did a version too but it’s really lame as only Cash can be, opening with the last verse and altering lines at will and including those only-in-Nashville backup singers. No, I just can’t.

So, what I’m saying is: you’re on your own if’n you want to hear this thing. Bob’s 1964 studio version is still as close as you can get to the essence of the song because it’s a pretty naked—and not quite achieved—performance.

Perhaps it’s the color of the sun cut flat
And coverin’ the crossroads I’m standin’ at
Or maybe it’s the weather or something like that
But, mama, you been on my mind

It’s a great opening, in the mood of many of Dylan’s reverie songs, particularly “One Too Many Mornings.” Those crossroads suggest our boy is at a turning point, but, rather than acknowledge that outright, he fills it in as a background detail, drawing our attention to the sun and the weather. I’m thinking about ya, you see, because it’s the weather, prob'ly, not because I know I’m at a crossroads.

I don’t mean trouble, please don’t put me down or get upset
I am not pleading or sayin’ I can’t forget
I do not pace the floor, bowed down and bent but yet
Mama, you been on my mind

Look at how varied the line lengths are. This is why it’s hard to sing and why people tend to take liberties with the lyrics, but if you get it right you won’t lose things like the rhyme scheme. You might be tempted to truncate: “I don’t mean trouble, please don’t get upset.” But that’s not as good as the rush with which Dylan gets out the “please don’t put me down” which is essential because this song could easily be taken as a plea: hey, let’s get back together. But it’s not that. That’s key. It's not an opening for her to say why they're history. As we’ll see this song is entirely contained by inner contemplation. Saying “you been on my mind” is saying I’m trying to think this through as I say it. And I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. That great line “I do not pace the floor, bowed down and bent” (letting us picture exactly that as it takes it away) is made even greater by “but yet,” and in the 1964 recording he does it full justice, mulling it over for us. No, I ain’t that bad over you, but yet. Draw your own conclusions.

In the next verse we hear about some of what he might be bowed down and bent about (if he actually were):

Even though my mind is hazy and my thoughts they might be narrow
Where you been don’t bother me or bring me down in sorrow
I don’t even mind who you’ll be wakin’ with tomorrow
Mama, you’re just on my mind

Those who sing the printed lyrics say “It don’t even bother me where you’ll be wakin’ up tomorrow.” Yeah, she’s a vagabond, this girl, god knows where she is. But screw the printed lyrics. What Dylan sings in 1964 is a much better line: “I don’t even mind who you’ll be wakin’ with tomorrow.” Flash forward to “You’re a Big Girl Now” and that great line “I know where I can find you ohhhh in somebody’s room.” Here Bob affects nonchalance about all that. It’s not where, it’s with whom—and he doesn’t mind. She’s “just on his mind.” He’s really not the possessive type. His thoughts might be narrow, though. Kinda one-track, but it’s not about where you been or who you’re with. Honest.

I’m not even going to talk about the printed lyrics for the next verse (which some others also sing that way). Let’s just stick with how Bob recorded it:

I’m not askin’ you to say words like “yes” or “no,”
Please understand me, I got no place I’m callin’ you to go
I’m just whispering to myself so I can’t pretend that I don’t know
Mama, you are on my mind.

This is the best verse so far, as recorded. He’s not proposing anything. He’s got “no place” he and she can go to. All that is off the table. But he’s “whisperin’” (printed lyrics say “breathin’ to myself”—which might be more accurate in the sense that he’s not really saying any of this aloud, but it’s not a good phrase. You can whisper to yourself, but you can’t really breathe to anyone but yourself). But the part that really is good on the recording is: “so I can’t pretend that I don’t know”—because much of this song is pretending that what he knows isn’t that big a deal. But here he lets it crack through with a very carefully placed stress: Mama, you are on my mind.  Right now, right here. No fooling.

And then, as is so often the case, Bob saves the best for last. And this is where most singers of the song spoil it. They don’t treat this verse as the transcendent moment it is. And the song falls flat as a result.

When you wake up in the morning, baby, and look inside your mirror
You know I won’t be next to you, you know I won’t be near
I’d just be curious to know if you can see yourself as clear
As someone who has had you on his mind.

This isn’t so direct as “I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind / You coulda done better but I don’t mind.” This is Bob going away from that mirror and leaving at his own chosen speed. She’ll wake up (with whomever) and she’ll go to her glass (as women have been doing in poems since time immemorial) and she won’t fall into a study about how she’s aging or any of that “nyah nyah you’ll die” stuff that poets like Byron like to lay on the lady laid and left, no, Bob says, look “inside your mirror”—really look. I’m not next to you in that mirror as maybe I was once (me and you, looking in at us looking out), and you’ll be all alone there. And, whatever you see, whatever your own glance reads back to your searching eyes, will you see it as clear—and he nails that word, giving it the full weight of knowing and acknowledgement and, what’s more, the scope of the mind’s eye because as he sings this he can clearly see her reflected in her glass, reflected in his song, and, as The Beatles say, “I’m looking through you.” He sees through her, he sees her with the clarity of—finally—retrospect: “someone who has had you on his mind.” The song’s over, the vision ended, he’s moving along down one path or another. But y’know, just curious if she’s achieved that clarity as well. Because, he hints, you’ve never really been on your own mind the way you’ve been on mine, mama.

Dylan’s recorded version is still the best because he knows exactly what he’s saying. The problem with it is that the guitar playing is a bit tentative here and there which seems to distract him a bit. Oh well, he never sang the song as clear as he did then. Because to do this right, you've got to mind it.


Anonymous said...

Luv Ronstadt's version. She was so young and her voice so pure. Long long time ago

Donald Brown said...

Hey, thanks, I don't think I've heard it, but I'll hunt it down.

Hugh Farrell said...

This has been one of my obscure favourites for a long time. Thoroughly enjoyed the reading Donald. Thanks.

Andrew Shields said...

A moving and excellent discussion of the tune, Don. One of the best posts yet. Keep up the good work! Or let's call it "the good play."

Donald Brown said...

Thanks Hugh and Andrew, I wanted to give this song its due since I was unable to give it any attention in my book on Dylan.