Sunday, June 29, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 180): "UP TO ME" (1975) Bob Dylan

Nearing the halfway point of the series, looking for some notable numbers to “end” on, I’ve decided to return to the first two featured artists: Bob Dylan today, Neil Young tomorrow.  The songs I’ve chosen are both from the Seventies and are two amazing instances of their lyrical fertility.

Dylan’s “Up to Me” was recorded for Blood on the Tracks during the initial sessions in New York in 1974. That album was set to go and Dylan changed his mind, went up to Minnesota and re-recorded most of the tracks. “Up to Me” didn’t get a reworking and so got jettisoned (as my friend Rob points out, its tune got used for “Shelter from the Storm,” a better song). It finally turned up, after its life as a desired bootleg track, on Biograph in 1985. The song was also recorded by Roger McGuinn—who knows a great Dylan song when he hears it—for his album Jolly Roger (1976). And that’s how I knew the song, in McGuinn’s more upbeat, surging version—which does take a few liberties with the lyrics as well. Though, to be fair, sometimes McGuinn is singing the printed lyrics, though Dylan, in his version, makes minor changes to them when it suits him.

There are those who feel Blood on the Tracks is weaker without this song. I’m not really one of them. Just as I don’t prefer the New York recordings to the released versions. I’m glad to have the New York tracks, but I consider them alternatives—they do sound like demos, regardless of how many of their apologists see them as more definitive because more “naked” or “intimate.”  They are indeed, but I don’t take that as the best version of Dylan’s art, in part because I’m highly skeptical of a performer of Dylan’s wiliness and skill as ever “naked.” You see somebody naked and you say who is that man? Well, we all know who that man is, and he’s always got his cloak of many colors.

Intimate, yes. We feel like Dylan is singing the song almost to himself (I think he is, because he’s still learning it), and letting us in on the shifting vision of how he sees the woman or women to whom the song is addressed. The situations are fairly amorphous and the song strikes me as being somewhere between “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Idiot Wind” (both on Blood on the Tracks) in its use of imagery. There’s a narrative in “Tangled” but not in “Wind”—there’s direct address in both, but especially in the latter. Direct address is a big part of “Up to Me” and that’s what makes it so riveting. We feel that we’re eavesdropping as Dylan lets someone hear his version of what’s been happening between them, and with him, and so on. “Idiot Wind” does that too, and its more barbed about it, lampooning to some extent the addressee and the situation. The Tracks version is more relentless in the distance it interposes between the speaker and his addressee. The New York version is more ruminative and subdued, much in tone like “Up to Me.”

In some ways “Up to Me” is as good (almost) as both Tracks tracks.  But in other ways, it’s a bit too assured in its transcendence of the situation. Much as we love hearing Dylan insist that “no one else could play that tune / You knew it was up to me” as his parting shot, it’s a bit too self-mythifying even for him. It really doesn’t fit on an album so insistent about the cost of love and the travails of loss. In “Up to Me,” the wounds seem to be mainly provisional, something to mull over the possibility of. The woman (or women) addressed might not be essential. But let’s stop speaking in generalities and take a look at the lyrics.

For me, the first six verses address a woman who is already in the past (“I know you’re long gone”), but about whom (and to whom) the singer has much to say, to characterize what was what. The second six stanzas alter the situation, beginning with my favorite verse, which seems to be about meeting someone new. Then comes a verse that seems to still characterize this new involvement. Then another two that seem to be addressing the initial addressee, the woman from the past, with random jottings. In the penultimate verse the woman from the 7th and 8th stanzas—let’s call her “new woman”—is on the outs too (“the girl with me behind the shades / She ain’t my property / One of us has got to hit the road / And I guess it must be up to me”).  Then comes the great last verse, seemingly from the heart to the intial woman (but also, perhaps, including “new woman”): “And if we never meet again, / Baby, then remember me / How my lone guitar played sweet for you/ That old time melody / And the harmonica around my neck / I blew it for you free / Nobody else could play that tune / You knew it was up to me.”

The satisfaction of that ending is in the fact that it lets us know that, no matter how tried by his affections and desires the speaker may be, he can still knock out a tune to encapsulate it all and the song will be his gift to himself and to his listeners (which should include, and here explicitly does include, the woman). And maybe it was his gift of song that she most valued. Until that just wasn’t enough. Still, she’s going to have to face the future without that tune because no one but he can play it. Righteous.

So what is the story of the initial woman?  Dylan starts in a lyrical register not far from the cranked-up imagery of “Idiot Wind”: “Everything went from bad to worse / Money never changed a thing / Death kept followin’ ‘n’ trackin’ us down / At least I heard your bluebird sing.” Right there we can see why maybe he didn’t want to stick with this song. In the face of death, a bluebird? Is that “of happiness,” Bob? Anyway, we’re way too wild here—money and death as the attendants on this doomed affair. Or rather: despite all our money, we couldn’t cheat death. That’s maybe a bit too close to the guy who, it’s said, “shot a man named Gray and took his wife to Italy / She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me.” I guess the bucks didn’t help, what with death always in the rearview mirror. Oh, and I forgot to mention that “time is an enemy” as well. So there you have it: money, death and time. Way too heavy.

Then we get the proper opening (this is a song with two openings and two endings—Dylan’s imagination is so fertile at this point he doesn’t know when one is enough): “If I thought about it / I never would have done it.” Now, there’s an irresistible opening, and he ties it to things like “I was just to stubborn / To ever be governed / By enforced insanity.” That’s our Bob! He’s making a career-judging statement and also casting a cold eye on those who might say a relationship wasn’t worth what it brought—hurt to others, and its own undermining, etc. “Someone had to reach for the rising star / And I guess it was up to me.” Yes. Go for it!

Then we get a verse full of extraneous details (Union Central, orchids, a shirt stinking of stale perfume) to arrive at: “In fourteen months / I’ve only smiled once / And I didn’t do it consciously.” The boy is hot, and now he’s going to try to find her trail. (We’re back at the end of “Tangled Up in Blue” with the “I got to get to her somehow” but without nearly the same degree of narrative depth). “Up to Me” is still pulling punches, but every verse has at least one killer line. And, mind you, I’m judging this by the standards Dylan himself creates on Blood on the Tracks, not the standards of other songwriters you might care to mention.

Then we get the second great couplet of the song (the first is at the start of the second (which should be the first) verse): “It was like a revelation / When you betrayed me with your touch / I’d just about convinced myself / That nothing had changed that much.” It should probably be “could change that much,” but you’ve always got to allow Bob his sense of grammatical necessity. It’s all about how it sounds and feels when you sing it, not what’s “right” on the page. In any case, there was the possibility of a revelation, there in the physicality of it all. And now we know why he wants to find her trail.

Then we get two verses that truncate the kind of knocking about we hear about, more fully realized, in “Tangled Up.” Here we get an officer’s club, a river bridge—the great rhyme of “ticket stub” with “club” which takes us back to “wouldn’t it be my luck / To be caught without a ticket and be discovered beneath the truck.” Which is a way of saying that Dylan is riffing here like he did in his heyday, letting words do their work. “Club / stub”—they wouldn’t let me in and you were with them officers. Time to be moving on. Then, like that job on the docks of Delacroix, we hear that the speaker spent time working as a “postal clerk” (would you buy a book of stamps from this man?), and he would “haul your picture down off the wall / Near the cage where I used to work.” I defy anyone to come up with a better weird working-stiff image in all of Dylan. This is so delightful you don’t really care that we’re kind of way off topic now.

Bob brings it all back home with that aforementioned favorite verse of mine, the one that makes me believe in this song and makes me willing to cite it and sing it and keep it with mine: “I met somebody face to face / And I had to remove my hat / She’s everything I need in love / But I can’t be swayed by that / It frightens me, the awful truth / Of how sweet life can be / But she ain’t a-gonna make a move / I guess it must be up to me.”  Amen, amen, amen, again and again, Bob.  And the “remove my hat” is priceless. Or as Mick says, “takes the shine right off your shoes.” Drilled. And now desperate to find “a move” that will make it all work. But, really, have you ever stared down the barrel of “how sweet life can be” (more like, could be)? Just from crossing paths with someone?

Then the song veers into mysticism—the Sermon on the Mount (“too complex”) and “what the broken glass reflects.” Bob’s reaching here but clearly this girl who makes him remove his hat (wahl, I’ll be!) drives him to some spiritual turmoil—turmoil that maybe deserves better lines if he ever got around to writing them. “When you bite off more than you can chew / You got to pay the penalty.” I’ll say. And now there’s a tale to be told. Which is starting to make “new woman” seem …. old hat? (Ouch.)

But we’re not out of the woods yet (though to my mind we could jettison the next two verses), because we’re suddenly in some kind of milieu where “Dupree came in pimping tonight / To the Thunderbird CafĂ© / Crystal wanted to talk to him—/ I had to look the other way.” Now we’re getting the letter from home bit. Bob’s trying to fill in the initial woman on all the gossip. “Yeah, I met somebody, but y’know it’s like the Sermon on the Mount with her, and meanwhile other chicks are whoring.”  Same-o, same-o.  Next up is a note in a bottle and yet another woman—Estelle—“she’s the one you been wondering about / But there’s really nothin’ much to tell” (do tell) “We both heard voices for awhile / Now the rest is history” (the great line of this verse, though not so great that we need this verse). Some might think Estelle is the “new woman,” but I don’t think so because the “new woman” is not to be named. Because initial woman doesn’t know her. She might know Estelle, though she didn’t know she was “the one” our man was hearing voices with.  Oh, her!, we can imagine initial woman thinking.

Now Bob is about ready to call it a night: “So go on, boys, and play your hand, / Life is but a pantomime / The ringleaders from the county seat / Say you don’t have all that much time.”  True enough, and maybe that pantomime idea comes from spending too much time waving signals at the circling legion of chicks looking for a connection. You should have better things to do, by now, Bob. And so, that great couplet about the girl behind the shades with him, and hitting the road.

And then the final kiss-off. “And if we never meet again . . . “ It really is a letter to an absent one, sent off in a fit of truth-telling, gossip, big statements, confusion, and an inspired rush of trying to let bygones be bygones while also showing off a penchant for pithy glimpses of a complicated dude leading his complicated life. And remember the last direct comment on the addressee: “Was I fool or not to try / To protect your real identity / You looked a little burnt-out, my friend, / I thought it might be up to me.” Hope this finds you well, but that picture of you on your wanted poster?—not looking so good, sweetheart. Which is a way of saying that this outlaw woman may have bit off more than she could chew or might be that, for him. He’s still trying to make sweet to her at the close with his lone guitar and his old-time melody and his harmonica. The fact that these are the means of his trade might imply that, in the end, you just can’t own this cagey dude. Still, he might “cross the line” for her, and, in any case, he’s willing to tell the tale. It's just that it's all so temporary, like Achilles.

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