Wednesday, July 23, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 204): "WENT TO SEE THE GYPSY" (1970) Bob Dylan

This month’s Dylan song is in honor of my recent visit to: 1) Duluth, the town he was born in; 2) Hibbing, the town he grew up in; 3) Dinkytown, the section of Minneapolis near the University of Minnesota where he lived while, briefly, a student there. There aren’t many songs in which Dylan references his home state or its environs. If we discount “North Country Blues,” which tells the tale of hard times for miners up there on the Mesabi Iron Range, and “Girl from the North Country,” which looks back at the girl left behind, there’s not too much that alludes to Dylan’s place of origin. Partly because, early on, he obscured his origins. Bobby Zimmerman came from there, not Bob Dylan necessarily. “Highway 61 Revisited” references the highway that ran through the state back then, but it runs through other states as well, snaking along the Mississippi. Today’s song could actually be called a bit nostalgic, or at least it’s a song that cooks up something of an “origin story,” turning the birth of “Bob Dylan” into a matter of folklore, as perhaps it should be.

The song ends with the line “So I watched that sun come rising from that little Minnesota town.” Which could be Hibbing, well enough, or even Duluth. Though the “big hotel” where the speaker meets the gypsy sounds more like Minneapolis. Some see it as Vegas because of a story that Dylan visited Elvis there around the time the song dates from. That’s as may be, but the song isn’t present day. It’s a blast from the past, as I see it. It’s one of the better songs on New Morning because it feels close to the kinds of songs Dylan wrote and recorded with the guys who became The Band up in the Woodstock area of NY in 1967. It’s only that name-drop of Minnesota that makes one think it’s related to Dylan’s own life. Otherwise the character who sees the gypsy could be like any of the oddball characters populating those Woodstock era tunes.  Around that time, and that includes the magisterially simple John Wesley Harding, Dylan became a purveyor of little parable-like tales, nothing like the riot of images and proper names and carnivalesque conceits that permeate his 1965-66 period.

Went to see the gypsy / Staying in a big hotel / He smiled when he saw me comin’ / And he said, “Well, well, well.”  Well might he say “well, well, well.” The Bob I imagine the gypsy meeting is the one shaking the dust of Minnesota off his feet to head to New York and fame and fortune. Having visited the minor bohemia of Dinkytown (the name kind of sums it up, though it refers to the trolleys in the area), it’s easy to see why. And the time of the notables, not least Prince, who have hailed from Minneapolis and were part of a music scene there in the Eighties, was still to come. We imagine the gypsy looking young Bobby Zimmerman over and seeing where the kid is heading. He sees he’s ready to be reborn as Bob Dylan.

But there are no revelations in the song. “How are you?” he said to me; I said it back to him.  It doesn’t get much more laconic than that. Then the speaker goes down to the lobby “to make a small call out.” An odd moment, we might think, if this is supposed to be some tale of a momentous encounter. In other words, there’s nothing happening with the gypsy. The guy is either not letting on or not interested. Or perhaps it’s the speaker who sees no point to the meeting. In the lobby a “pretty dancing girl” insists he “go on back to see the gypsy,” who will “move you from the rear / Drive you from your fear / Bring you through the mirror.” All might be well worthwhile. The idea being that the kid needs a push to get over whatever is holding him back. Of them all the trip “through the mirror” seems the most promising. The punchline, “he did it in Las Vegas and he can do it here,” is what gets people saying “Elvis!” but to me it sounds like more of a huckster’s hard-sell than anything. The gypsy is a pro; the gypsy has a show. It’s most likely a con.

Then there’s a little break, which Dylan’s vocal gives special emphasis to: Outside the lights were shining / On the river of tears / I watched them from the distance / With the music in my ears.  This is the mythic American moment. The river is the Mississippi, catching the lights of Minneapolis. Our boy watches them from a distance, hearing “the music” that will lead him away from all this.

Dutifully, he goes back to see the gypsy: It was nearly early dawn [gotta love that doubled-up adverbial phrase] / The gypsy’s door was open wide / But the gypsy was gone. Economical, cryptic? You betcha. Has the gypsy already done what was necessary?  Did he hightail it when he saw the kid’s future? Did he think the “small call out” was to the cops or for reinforcements? Who knows. The guy can’t find the dancing girl to get any more info—but the line “That pretty dancing girl, she could not be found” indicates he’s willing to pass some time in, as they say, amorous dalliance. But no dice. “So I watched that sun come rising / From a little Minnesota town / From that little Minnesota town.”

The line doesn’t say he’s getting on the road. We can assume he’s just going to keep hanging about till something remarkable happens. On the New Morning version, the line, from that little Minnesota town, is repeated with a change from a to that and sounds portentous. The implication I’ve always heard is that this is curtains for his stay in that little Minnesota town. More to the point: the speaker is “that son come rising from that little Minnesota town.” And the way the guitar comes forward with the “I went back to see the gyspy” verse seems to propel us out of the song and onto something else.

On last year’s Bootleg Series release Another Self Portrait, there’s a demo of the song—played on acoustic guitar with tasty fills on a second guitar—that’s lacking some of the better lines; the gypsy “wished me well” as opposed to saying “well, well, well.” And the feats of the gypsy are limited to “He can rid you of your fear”—which is good enough, but without the mirror bit it doesn’t sound like a magic show. And at the end, the speaker “watched the sun come rising in a little Minnesota town.” This lacks the sense of completion and of moving on. It really sounds like the guy has been left high and dry. Seconded by the fact that the second guitar takes over and seems to be looking for a way out. The bit about the “music in my ears” is also missing, but the bridge section is interesting: “Oh the lights were on the river / Shining from outside / I contemplated every move / Or at least I tried.” The lights / river bit is weaker, but the idea of contemplating every move works well with the idea of trying to figure out the gypsy’s game, or of what to do after consulting him.

The alternate version is on piano, but it sounds like a lounge act. Dylan sings it with a sense of reverence at times, at other times seems to be searching for the right tone. Piano does that I guess—makes the song feel more exploratory and possibly more elegant. But these effects rob the song of the incisiveness we’re used to from the version originally released. The lyrics are mostly the same, with the bridge trying for a satisfying intro and outro with piano noodling. The line at the end gets restated but with none of the definitiveness and the song ends abruptly. The finished version adds drums that give the song a rollicking feeling and all those organ fills from Al Kooper do much to situate the sound between the 1965-66 period and the work with The Band in 1973 on Planet Waves. In other words, just in terms of where Bob’s been and is going, the sound of the song works.


Tim said...

"Rainy days on the Great Lakes, walkin’ the hills of old Duluth" leaps to mind.

Donald Brown said...

Yeah, that's the one I was going to do.... but this song came first, and alternate versions were recently released.