Saturday, May 24, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 144): "CARIBBEAN WIND" (1981; 1985) Bob Dylan



Today is the 73rd birthday of Bob Dylan, or rather Robert Allen Zimmerman, his given name. Bob Dylan didn’t exist officially until around 1960. The song today is one of those great Dylan tracks that never quite got its final, official recording. The version I’ll be discussing in detail was sort of officially released, on the collection Biograph (1985), a compendium of Dylan’s entire career to that point that, amongst a lot of oft-re-released well-known songs, included some rarities that people had been dying to get their hands on. The version of “Caribbean Wind” on that collection was recorded in April 1981 for Shot of Love but not used. It needed probably another take, though its “live in the studio” method suits it well enough for a bootleg.

On the site Johanna’sVisions you can find that version and two other versions, which the Dylan mavens seem to prefer for reasons obscure to me. The earliest version is live and has very different lyrics. It’s a much more tentative lyric, to my mind, in terms of its poetry, but many who feel themselves close to Dylan the man like to imagine that the song is more “nakedly autobiographical.” There is a kind of fan who insists on the latter quality as superior to every other criteria—I don’t share this perspective because it’s very difficult to determine what is true (even when Dylan says he wrote “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” for Sara Dylan in the Chelsea Hotel his biographers don’t believe him), and also because I don’t really care whether something “really happened”; I’m drawn in by Dylan’s flights of imagination, not by his ability to characterize reality. And anyway, the woman (if there is an actual woman) behind the live version and the other Johanna’s Visions version (from the March 1981 sessions) goes from being “from Haiti, fair, brown and intense,” to being “well-rehearsed, fair, brown and blonde.”  The first phrase sounds like it’s describing someone; by the time he was recording it he’s creating a type, with bus boy friends and friends in the Pentagon, like saying you’ve sat with paupers and with kings.

There are many reasons I prefer the released version (which is to say, I’m backing Dylan on this one, as I generally do, though I try to hear out those with their definite demurrals . . . there’s no way “Dansville Girl” is better than “Brownsville Girl,” in terms of complexity of development, though there are reasons to insist that the first version of “When the Night Comes Falling” (on Bootleg Series, Vol. 1-3) is vastly superior to the Empire Burlesque version, and that “Someone’s Got a Hold of My Heart” is, in some elements, “better” (or looser and more fun) than “Tight Connection to My Heart,” though the latter is, to my mind, a great track). So it goes. In every discarded Dylan version you learn something new, just as you do when he plays live (so long as he’s not phoning it in). The man is meant to be a performer more than a recording artist, that’s true. And nothing really replaces that connection that takes place when he's in front of an appreciative audience.

The only other thing I want to say about the earlier two versions of “Caribbean Wind” is that the last verse is highly anticlimactic, but is in-keeping with the unprepossessing opening about this girl that got away or went away, even though Bob was willing to invite her to stay (“I’ve got plenty of room”). This kind of seduction thing I find amusing more than compelling. And in the live version Dylan does that “Idiot Wind” thing of making the wind keep blowing in different places each time the chorus comes around. My favorite is: “The Caribbean wind blows hard from the Valley coast into my backyard”—see! it’s autobiographical, he’s talking about his house in Malibu—and, only somewhat less fun: “The Caribbean wind still howls from Tokyo to the British Isles”—which I suppose has something to do with trade winds.

OK, enough of that, let’s talk about what Dylan did to the lyric on the last version we’ve got. Re: the music—I don’t know what is the problem with the version except that it hasn’t completely jelled, still the guitar parts are fine if not great, the drum rolls in the chorus do a lot to add the sense of mounting excitement which is what, as I hear it, helps deliver the wild lines at the end, which have the kind of reach that one finds on, say, “O Where Are You Tonight?” What Dylan does in turning away from an allegedly autobiographical mode is to go for “prophetic” or “metaphysical”—as he did on songs on Street-Legal before he decided that Jesus was the only prophet worth listening to. So, for me, back in 1985 when this song showed up, it was like hearing a “comeback” to Street Legal-era writing after the Jesus period, much as was “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” and “Every Grain of Sand,” both recorded for Shot of Love as well. And the earlier recording, in March, is just too sing-songy, and that drop and uplift on "de-sire" bugs me. It's a very uninspired vocal, all told. Close to phoning it in.

I’m going to repost the lyrics of the Biograph “Caribbean Wind” from Johanna’s Visions’ post, with a few emendations because I don’t agree with their transcription completely, and because the breaks on their post don’t respect verse breaks.

She was the Rose of Sharon from Paradise Lost
From the City of Seven Hills near the place of the cross.
I was playin’ a show in Miami in the Theater of Divine Comedy.
Told about Jesus, told about the rain
She told me ‘bout the jungle where her brothers were slain
By the man who invented iron and disappeared so mysteriously.

The references come thick and fast in the opening, jumping from a reference to the Song of Solomon to Milton’s epic poem about the loss of Eden, then from Rome (the city of the seven hills) to Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, with a further epic reference in the Divine Comedy, a story of a pilgrim’s journey through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise. So in three lines we go from Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained. Things get a bit murky after that, with “Jesus” recalling Dylan’s recent Christian conversion and “the rain” being there as a characteristic Dylan detail from the electric period, then the jungle, the brothers and the mysterious “man who invented iron” are downright bizarre. The imagery smacks a bit of Heart of Darkness and some kind of commercial exploration into the wilds that didn’t end well, perhaps with a sense of sacrifice.

Was she a child or an angel? Did we go too far?
Were we sniper bait? Did we follow a star
Through the hole in the wall to where the long arm of the law cannot reach?
Could I have been used or played as a pawn?
It certainly was possible as the gay night wore on
When men bathed in perfume and practiced the hopes of free speech.

The “child or angel” question is perhaps not as pointed as the child or woman question (the idea of a female being one or the other is frequent in Dylan from “Girl from the North Country” through “Just Like a Woman” and it is interesting to see it come up again), but it is more in keeping with the transformational story he’s telling now. I’ve always heard “were we sniper bait” rather than “Where we sniped the bait” which makes no sense to me. Sniper bait is, in other words, a decoy, in keeping with the notion of being a “pawn.” Further, the “long arm of the law” supports the notion that there’s some kind of vendetta happening here. It’s all very vague and in a verse like this delivery is everything—the rhetorical questions mount up and then get “answered” with “it certainly was possible.” I’ve always assumed the “gay night,” the perfumed men, and the “hopes of free speech” are referencing gay rights as the backdrop or temporal setting for the events. Dylan, in his Old Testament-styled Christian period, doesn’t visit judgment upon gays, as most of the religious Right do, but here he seems to glance at the relaxation of restrictions as well as, possibly, the AIDS crisis, just starting to get national attention.

Chorus:
And them Caribbean winds still blow from Nassau to Mexico
Fanning the flames in the furnace of desire
And them distant ships of liberty on them iron waves so bold and free
Bringing everything that’s near to me nearer to the fire.

On the version from March, he drags out the “nearer to the fire” line which is how it was done in a live version I heard from 1980 (which led me to believe the song was called “Nearer to the Fire”); on the April version he has improved the chorus with a strong lift on the third line so that it becomes as key as the title line. “Them distant ships of liberty” sound like a figure for new freedoms that, while imaged as waves, could be driven by winds of change, and are being driven nearer to the fire, where the fire seems to be a cleansing one, rather than, say, an inferno.

Sea breeze blowin’, there’s a hellhound loose
Redeemed men who have escaped from the noose
Preaching faith and salvation, waitin’ for the night to arrive.
He was well-connected by her heart was a snare
And she had left him to die in there.
He was going down slow, just barely staying alive.

The live version, with “the prodigal son” who is well-connected and ensnared, is better, since the “he” here has no antecedent. It retains a sense of “Tangled Up in Blue” in the third person version, but the “he” and “she” also recall “Simple Twist”—the feeling of the singer looking askance at a bad relationship is what matters; the initial three lines continue the idea of, perhaps, last days, paradise lost or regained (“hellhound,” “redeemed men,” “faith and salvation”). Such terms, like “long arm of the law” and “free speech” seem to be deliberate clichés that capture the prevailing context. It’s a battle for the soul being played out on very slippery ground.

The cry of the peacock, flies buzz in my head
Ceiling fan broken, there’s a heat in my bed
Street band playing “Nearer My God to Thee.”
We met at the station, hear the mission bells ring,
She said, “I know what you’re thinking and there ain’t a thing
You can do about it, so let us just agree to agree.”

This verse is really strong on delivery on this version. The images—peacock (pride), flies (buzz of rumor)—become a bit more palpable, especially when the “furnace of desire” gets translated into “there’s a heat in my bed” (with a joke about a broken ceiling fan)—Dylan gives it a cartoonish stress that sells it and then gives his all on the street band and their song of salvation. We’re getting closer to the kinds of temporal temptation that the singer is living through, though with a worked-up symbolic backdrop, where mission bells punctuate the woman’s advice, in a (train or police) station. Earlier it was “just let it be” which might be better in giving us a nice reference to a certain influential band’s late sentiment, but here the “agree to agree” seems a definite détente. The phrase is usually “agree to disagree” (which I offer to all who prefer the other versions), but here the agreement is key. We are agreeing that there’s nothing that can be done. It’s a shared impotence, we might say, in the face of whatever shit is going down.

After the chorus again, we begin to hear more about the shit coming down, in a final verse that completely sweeps away the earlier version with a frenzy of provoked vision and doubtful meaning; it’s not just a crisis of faith—in terms of furnace or salvation—but a crisis in what the signs portend. A much more gripping sense of where Dylan is, as he passes out of his “Jesus is the answer” phase into something more questioning and seeking, would be hard to imagine:

Atlantic City by the cold, gray sea,
I hear a voice crying “Daddy!” I always think it’s for me
But it’s only the silence in the motor(?) blue pews that calls.
Every new messenger brings in evil report
‘bout armies on the march and time that is short
And famines and earthquakes and train wrecks and the tearin’ down of the wall.

The line about the voice crying Daddy, “I always think it’s for me” is such a major improvement on what was there before. This is a real phenomenon for fathers, and it’s rare for Dylan to put himself in that role in song. But it’s also not just an autobiographical detail—it suggests a voice in distress, where, if you like, “sins of the fathers” are being visited on future generations. And so we have all those evil reports about armies and famines and earthquakes—real Biblical end times stuff—but also a prophetic moment: “the tearin’ down of the Wall.”  I suspect Dylan means the Wailing Wall, the last remaining sacred wall of the Temple of Jerusalem, whose fall would be a religious disaster to cap the secular disasters he has named, but it could also refer to the tearing down of the Wall in Berlin that occurred before the decade was out. Since that was a positive event, it doesn’t fit the string of disasters cited, but it does give a temporal end point to what the song is driving at. On his next album, Infidels, Dylan would look askance, more than he had in some time, at the capitalist system. So. Also note that in the other versions he clearly says “the silence in the buttermilk hills” but does NOT say that here. I hear “pews” very clearly but the adjective is uncertain. Silence in the pews is more damning (they may well be empty) than whatever buttermilk hills may be expected to suggest.

Now we really ratchet it up (which is why I think he’s thinking of the fall of the Wailing Wall):

Did you ever have a dream that you couldn’t explain?
Ever meet your accusers face to face in the rain?
She had chrome-brown eyes that I won’t forget as long as she’s gone.
I see the screws breakin’ loose, see the devil poundin’ on tin
See a house in the country being torn apart from within
I can hear my ancestors callin’ from the land far beyond.

Anyone who thinks the original version, with its give-and-take invite to yet another young woman, is preferable to this tour de force is the fan of a different Dylan than I. The opening line here about a dream that you couldn’t explain takes us back not only to Nebuchadnezzar and his consultation of Daniel (earlier versions have “the writing on the wall” for the tearing down of the wall), but puts us at the moment of creation. In other words, it’s a rhetorical question that seems to come to us on the spur of the moment. Things are getting hard to interpret and rather than have the singer to tell us how it is, we get a series of dream-images that feel more like imagery than the series of disasters did. The “accusers face to face in the rain” carries over from the meeting at the station, perhaps, but the scope travels well beyond it. The accusers could even be the ancestors—which some might see as guilt about his change to Christianity (Infidels, the next album, indicates a clear move back to the “eye for an eye” ethos of the Old Testament), but, of course, Dylan’s accusers are generally legion (beginning with those who feel he has sold his birthright for a mess of pottage, or released the wrong versions of his songs as though enfeebled and undiscerning about his own work). “She had chrome-brown eyes that I won’t forget as long as she’s gone” beggars anything in the original version of this verse, though I guess some are charmed by “she had bells in her braids that hung to her toes.” Much cuter, I admit.

That quick montage of destruction (screws breaking loose) and the devil (pounding on tin is beating a tin drum to call more souls to his tune, I suppose) is off-set by the ancestors calling from a land far beyond—so, again, the furnace and paradise dichotomy, with, in between, a house in the country being torn apart from within. Which house is the soul itself but also the country itself. Dylan is a man with no set allegiance at this point, and the end of this song is a strident reach for some kind of belonging: to regain the land of the ancestors, or to join them in paradise, though it could as easily be a Land of Cockaigne.

Happy birthday, Bob. Even contested songs like this one beat the crap out of most attempts at sustained imagery among his contemporaries, epigones, and even his ancestors.

May God bless and keep you always.




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