Tuesday, October 21, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 294): "THIS WHEEL'S ON FIRE" (1967/1968) Bob Dylan / The Band

This evening there’s a book party at the Institute Library in New Haven, partly sponsored by the New Haven Review, in honor of The Band: Pioneers of Americana Music by Craig Harris. Earlier this year was a party there for my book on Dylan. So, why not a song that Dylan recorded with members of what would become The Band at that hideaway up in the Woodstock area of NY in 1967, a song that was also featured on The Band’s debut album, Music from Big Pink (1968)? The song, co-written by Dylan with The Band’s bassist and sometime lead vocalist, Rick Danko, has been covered by others as well, notably by Siouxise and The Banshees in the late Eighties. And of course the song was included on The Basement Tapes (1975), the selection of “Big Pink” recordings that Dylan and the proto-Band got up to up there in New York State. Very bucolic, very basementy, very laidback and booze-laden, very stoned and inspired. The full panoply of tracks set down on Garth Hudson’s tapedeck will see the light of day—official-release-wise—next month. Which might cause some updating to my book, whenever a new printing comes around.

Anyway, the song is the last track on the original Basement Tapes release, with Dylan’s vocal, and is the penultimate track on Big Pink, with Danko’s vocal. Take your pick. I’m more partial to the Dylan version (big surprise there) because it’s a bit more chastened, having the feel of some kind of atonement to be made. “If your memory serves you well, we were going to meet again and wait / So I’m going to unpack all my things and sit before it gets too late.” Though I gotta say that that hawking guitar gives The Band’s version lots of prickly attitude. And that I would say is the main difference. The Band’s warning that “this wheel’s on fire / Rolling down the road / Best notify my next of kin / This wheel shall explode” sounds fraught with imminent peril, especially as Danko’s shaky vocals get shakier as the song goes on. Tremulous, even. And his bass playing always lends plenty of funky bottom, like being down there in the Holler.

Dylan’s is backwoodsy in a different way—like stumbling on a clearing where unknown persons have been up to unknown activities. The way he hits “no man alive will come to you / With another tale to tell / And you knew that we shall meet again / If your mem’ry serves you well” sounds haunted but also haunting. He might well be the voice of what they used to call “a revenant.” Fancy name for a ghost as someone or something that “comes again.” Revisiting some space over and over again, and the way they all chime on “rollin’ down the road” and “exploooode” sounds baleful indeed. And Garth Hudson’s background organ is the kind of touch that The Basement Tapes excel in. Plenty of mood, plenty of atmosphere.

And what’s it all about anyway? It’s a time to face facts and consequences, with that great line about sitting before it gets too late the optimal take away. And the recurring lines about memory serving you well. Memory is key to the song’s sense of someone come from the past to remind someone in the present that they had a pact together—and it still applies. That’s what makes me think of the ol’ “hand of death” idea. Just because I’m dead, don’t mean I’m gone. “You knew that we should meet again.” Eerie, no?

And that bit about the wheel on fire—shades of the “wheel of fire” in Lear—makes me think of an avenging spirit, like, y’know, in Johnny’s “The Man Comes Around”: “and hell followed with him.” The part that’s as down-home as you like though is that bit about “best notify my next of kin.” Which of course is what you do when someone dies, but it also conjures up bonds of kinship and suggests that there may be some folks around who will care to look up what’s left of him after that there explosion.

And after every plan had failed and there was nothing more to tell. That sounds final, but is it? Not when it’s followed with that recurring phrase bringing us back to the beginning just like a fiery wheel: “And you know that we shall meet again, if your memory serves you well.” Look backwards to see what’s coming.

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