Monday, 29 June 2009

The BEATLES: Rubber Soul


(#44: 25 December 1965, 8 weeks)

Track listing: Drive My Car/Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)/You Won’t See Me/Nowhere Man/Think For Yourself/The Word/Michelle/What Goes On/Girl/I’m Looking Through You/In My Life/Wait/If I Needed Someone/Run For Your Life

One of the pitfalls of being an experienced (or possibly over-experienced) listener is that when it comes to a literal re-view of albums long since acknowledged to be “landmarks” or “classics,” one sometimes takes refuge in a bizarre mixture of trepidation and cynicism; the gimlet eye aimed at its subject, the mouth silently accusatory – come on then, prove yourself; are you really as good as all that? This tends to be a convenient mask for the writer’s incipient dread at having to think of something new to say about it.

Immediately we cruise into the sternly optimistic highway of “Drive My Car,” however, such fears dissipate. The sonic difference between this and the previous five Beatles albums is something akin to the changeover from black and white to colour television; every sound is now crisp, direct and still startlingly modern-sounding. The Beatles themselves sound, perhaps for the first time, genuinely liberated, in that they have begun the process of liberating themselves from their hard-cast images and now seem free to write and sing about anything and anybody they like.

Moreover, “Drive My Car” marks a key step forward for Lennon and McCartney as composers in that it signifies a move towards the observational, a shift from general love/woe songs to sharper-focused character studies. This may have been in part inspired by the examples already being set by the likes of Pete Townshend and Ray Davies (although their best examples come from 1966 onwards) but musically there is a wider curiosity at work; struck by the militantly spontaneous polish of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” Harrison suggested it as a model to McCartney in terms of arranging “Drive My Car,” and McCartney’s gobstopper-profound bass drive throughout the track (as well as his own funky piano vamps) indicates how well he absorbed its lessons. Both Paul and John shriek their way through the song’s accumulating double entendres as though it were Christmas morning (so it is fitting that Rubber Soul ascended to number one in Christmas week), while George’s askew (and possibly varispeeded) guitar solo takes the music hall into the arena of the surreal.

If the Beatles were hardening up in the face of the Who, the Kinks and the Animals, however (not to mention the Stones), then they were similarly softening up in the prospect of the Byrds. That Harrison’s initial interest in Indian music was sparked off by doodling on a sitar he found in the props room while filming Help! is well known, but his deeper interest – the first manifestation of which was his playing and Lennon and McCartney’s writing on “Norwegian Wood” – was ignited following a long night in the company of Roger McGuinn and David Crosby when things to do with the raga were discussed and demonstrated. But while “Eight Miles High” proved that McGuinn’s mind was more on Coltrane’s mutation of the raga form, Lennon and McCartney preferred to subvert the folk song from within. Overall there is not much direct evidence of Dylan’s influence on Rubber Soul – though Dylan’s “Norwegian Wood” send-up (“4th Time Around” on Blonde On Blonde) suggests a coolness towards the record on his part – but “Norwegian Wood” uses Dylan’s bleakly dark comedy (Lennon’s markedly Scousean “rug”) to take the “Baby’s In Black” sea shanty trope to less fathomable depths, its vaguely grotesque punchline giving the impression of Roald Dahl dabbling with the Dorian mode.

In any event, both of these “comedy songs” (as its composers described them at the time) seemed new, astonishing, and perhaps a little unsettling, to Beatles followers, and if they had been pushed to some extent into raising their game, they met the challenge with wicked aplomb, to such an extent that even the record’s lesser songs are pulled into its ascending orbit. “You Won’t See Me” sees McCartney using the same chord sequence as “Eight Days A Week” (and, metaknowingly, the Four Tops’ “It’s The Same Old Song”), and is the strangest of his “Asher” songs to date; a chirpy major key melody and arrangement (those “oooh la la la”s which Steve Harley would use a decade later on “Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)”) hiding a lyric which veers between admonitory and suicidal, ironically decorated by one of Harrison’s most ringing and transcendent Stratocaster solos, its progressively ascending bell chimes resolving in a doorbell-to-heaven false high note peak, which in turn is subverted by Mal Evans’ malevolent high A organ sustenato throughout the final verse and chorus, a gratingly sniggering reversal of the high A lead violin sustenato throughout the final verse and chorus of “Yesterday.” As though to prove McCartney’s claims to invisibility, Lennon uses almost the same backing vocal trick (“ooooh-la la la la”) on “Nowhere Man,” less a putdown of the hapless 1965 George Mitchell Minstrels fan, more a carefully tender assassination of his own Weybridge self., the final bullets shooting from between the laughingly clenched teeth of his final “NO, BO, DY!”

Then it’s George’s turn to address nothingness; “Think For Yourself” is the first of his half-formed but surprisingly aggressive addresses to The Man, sneering about “the ruins of the life that you had in mind” as two McCartney basses buzz around him, the more prominent fuzzed-up and mixed to the forefront of the picture (fourteen years before Unknown Pleasures). The rhythmic rush is Motown-ish, the ending sharp and abrupt and the general tenor nudging in the direction of Mod.

The Mod flower is blossomed open in “The Word,” for me Rubber Soul’s standout and most forward looking track; a brilliant, stuttering rhythm, half Pickett, half “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” a swooning joint lead vocal by John and Paul, falsetto octave-doubling passages which could pass for gospel, even a hint of ska shuffle and endless decorations of arrangemental interest, including McCartney’s schoolteacher piano introduction and George Martin’s walrus-like harmonium interceptions midway – and, above all else, the flowering optimism: “Say The Word and be like me,” “Have you heard, The Word is Love!,” “I’m here to show EVERYBODY the light!” A shivering frisson of shiny yellow descents through the “So fine/Sunshine” couplets, 1967 announced with just over a year to go.

After that peak it’s back to the “comedy songs,” though McCartney’s cod-chanson “Michelle” manages to transcend its pastiche status through the writer’s studiously earnest vocal – he keeps the straightest of faces through the Nina Simone “Spell On You” quote and also the line “I think you know by now,” while his solo, possibly on speeded-up bass, foretells the Hugh Hopper of Wyatt’s “Alife.” There is only the faintest hint of a protruding tongue. Ringo follows with his feature “What Goes On,” a perfunctory but cheerful stroll through avenues of C&W betrayal, George going through the Chet Atkins motions.

A deeper humour reveals itself in Lennon’s “Girl,” the most peerless of songs about the thing rather than the thing itself (or herself). If the Green Gartside of 1985 knew how to play the listener and the camera with his deconstructions, then here are its roots; Lennon’s melodramatic indrawn breaths (of wonder or exhaustion?), the manner in which he steadily reveals that the girl is indeed no ideal, insofar as his dreams include, for the first time in three Lennon songs on side two of Rubber Soul which deal directly with death, the notion of mortality; his tropes move as seamlessly and sneakily as “The ‘Sweetest Girl’” would move from bubbling gum to revolution, the song’s Greek taverna stranded amidst a bier keller march more emphatic and less ironic than McCartney’s Seine reveries.

McCartney returns for “I’m Looking Through You” – now it’s “Asher” who is invisible, and McCartney’s voice is high in register, indignant in emotion and vituperative in its accusations. “The only difference,” he sneers at one point, “is that you’re down there,” prior to concluding, with a moderately terrifying euphoria, “And you’re NOWHERE!” (i.e. she’s the real Nowhere Girl) – again, the song’s emotion is subverted by the song’s bright swing, its sunny twists directly predicating the Monkees, especially Ringo’s minimalist Vox Continental organ riff and supporting tambourine.

Then we come to “In My Life,” Lennon’s “Yesterday” and the most profound song any of the Beatles had yet written. Much of its profundity stems from its considerably slimmed-down prolificity; Lennon originally conceived the song as a long-form epic memoir of childhood Liverpool but eventually pared it down to its emotional elements, and for the better. For the first time he faces down his loves and demons, and refuses to be wiped out by the things which once might have wiped him out. Moreover, he stays perfectly calm while doing so (although suppressed hyperactivity is implied by Martin’s sped-up electric piano-as-harpsichord pop-up interlude), the only crack in the fa├žade coming with his final, whimpered, impossibly moving “In my life” for which the entire song stops. The past is what it was and will always be, but it’s who and what are here now that matter; cutting himself from his past is palpably akin to cutting off at least one limb, but he knows that death (“Some are dead and some are living”) is not – yet – an option. As indeed did the young man in Los Angeles who would listen to this album, and in particular this song, with untold wonder, such that he knew that he had to produce something at least as profound and radical in order to survive.

Thereafter, however, Rubber Soul becomes curiously unresolved. “Wait” is a sombre variant on the Stax/”Drive My Car” model with gloomily descending minor chords and a manfully valiant attempt at an upbeat chorus. Still, Lennon’s concluding “Oh, how I’ve been alone,” reveals an exhaustion and oldness beyond his years, as McCartney’s bass rallentandos to a rumbling rattle beneath him like a disregarded Tube train – even though the song is purportedly about coming home. Harrison’s “If I Needed Someone,” in which his Rickenbacker Fireglo 12-string is more assertive than his voice, is the album’s clearest debt to the Byrds (in particular, “Bells Of Rhymney”) but as an exercise in sustained self-denial rivals as well as precedes (by a decade) “I’m Not In Love.”

Lennon provides a peculiarly unsatisfying ending to the album with “Run For Your Life,” the third of his triptych of death-related songs and perhaps the starkest – “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than with another man” was originally from Elvis’ “Baby Let’s Play House” but Lennon runs it into a grassless knoll of low-spirited rock, markedly lacking even the character or energy of his “Dizzy Miss Lizzy.” It runs morosely around its self-constructed circle of jealousy and is most notable for Lennon’s first clear admission of same (“I was born with a jealous mind”) and the curious glee with which he chews off the end of each chorus (“Thatssszeend-UH!”). Best viewed, perhaps, as a final glance towards a past he was so keen to forsake (but since he was yet to meet Yoko, possessed no real means of doing so), but the final petering out of Rubber Soul (which could easily have been solved by more judicious track selecting and sequencing) should not detract from its immensity as a whole. On the cover the group are still in the park, but now through a deliberately distorted lens, staring down at us just as they had done on the front of their debut; are we watching them or are they merely imagining us? God only knows.

Monday, 22 June 2009

The BEATLES: Help!






(#43: 14 August 1965, 9 weeks)

Track listing: Help!/The Night Before/You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away/I Need You/Another Girl/You’re Going To Lose That Girl/Ticket To Ride/Act Naturally/It’s Only Love/You Like Me Too Much/Tell Me What You See/I’ve Just Seen A Face/Yesterday/Dizzy Miss Lizzy

Another soundtrack to another movie musical, but the difference here is that where the songs of The Sound Of Music are indivisible from the story, I can listen to the Help! songs without once thinking of Help! the movie. This is not to say that the movie of Help! is no good, since I have previously said quite the opposite, but that the story these songs seem to be telling in the context of the album is quite different from a story climaxing in Leo McKern being chased down a beach.

“Help!” the song must have been as electrifying a shock as the song “A Hard Day’s Night” but electrifying in the sense of accidentally placing one’s forefinger on a careless live wire, since here the mounting tension which Lennon has hitherto been manfully attempting to suppress through songs like “When I Get Home” and “No Reply” finally explodes into something living next door to terror. Now he admits, in a prematurely hoarse voice, that he can’t cope with all this – whether “all this” involves endless touring and one night stands, or living in Weybridge, or having to raise Julian – and pleads for signifiers of hope, of rescue, as the song’s dodgem contours repeatedly slam his hopes against their white walled pads, though “I do appreciate” indicates a nouveau riche KT13 politesse which he can’t wait to rip apart.

But then virtually all of the songs on Help! are about relationships in one sense or another, and practically all drawn from uncomfortable and inconveniently sweaty real life. Throughout the album, McCartney appears to be constantly addressing Jane Asher, or more precisely dressing her down (as opposed to undressing her), as the accusatory thrust of “The Night Before” and “Another Girl” make clear; Lennon continues to theorise himself into getting out of his stoned armchair (but as “Ticket To Ride” proves, he can’t quite muster the energy until the very end). George is clearly besotted with Patti Boyd, if uncomfortable in other ways. Meanwhile, Ringo is happy to be their misery mascot (and thereby subvert the whole process).

Both “The Night Before” and “Another Girl” take the reggae tinges of McCartney’s “She’s A Woman” a little deeper (as, more subtly, Lennon does with “Help!”). “The Night Before” must be one of the most underrated of Beatles performances, Lennon having great fun pumping out deadpan chords on Abbey Road’s brand new electric piano (with increasing harmonic boldness in his comping during the song’s second half), Harrison’s extraordinary double-octave guitar break ramping up McCartney’s crossness into near-hysteria. “Another Girl” is even more adventurous since McCartney endeavours to marry skanking rhythm to country rolls. Harrison is again outstanding here, cutting into the song’s second middle eight with surprising venom, though McCartney is working at the very lowest end of his vocal range, giving the aura of an admonitory undertaker. This balances well, however, with the track’s overall lightness and bounce which point forward towards the Scritti of “Jacques Derrida” and even to some extent (in pop/fusion terms) towards the work of Eddy Grant.

George, meanwhile, is nervous but clearly bowled over. With “I Need You” and “You Like Me Too Much” we continue to see the evolution of his distinctively rhetorical style of songwriting – more conversational, less structurally fussed than Lennon or McCartney. Borrowing a feeling and adapting a hands-free rueful two-chord guitar motif from the Searchers’ “Needles And Pins,” “I Need You” sees Harrison attempting to articulate his love as cleanly as possible; note the courteous-verging-on-courtly confessional of “I could never really live without you” (and set it against Clapton’s subsequent howls directed towards the same subject on “Layla”). Its easy stroll and residual wistfulness indicate a path leading towards developments in Boston indie music; the likes of the Lemonheads, Dinosaur Jr/Sebadoh and Juliana Hatfield all take their lead from here. Lena describes “You Like Me Too Much” as “adorably clunky” and though clearly a minor developmental staging post of a song compresses more of Harrison’s fumbled thoughts (“I couldn’t really stand it”) into a bizarre aural scenario involving a hilarious, recurring pub barrelhouse piano figure (played by both McCartney and Martin) and some sardonic electric piano commentary from Lennon.

Lennon seems to be struggling with his own life as much as the need for anyone else’s; on “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” a neater development of the sea shanty folk tropes introduced on “Baby’s In Black,” his voice is perhaps the most exhausted we’ve yet heard it; plaintive, somehow defeated, head in hand, face to the wall, “feeling two foot small,” wanting something or someone more/else but not quite sure what is involved in getting it/them. The question of whether it is or isn’t about Epstein and/or closeted thoughts is superseded by the singer’s palpable desperation, the faux-merry Dorian “HEY!” constantly dragged down by Ringo’s funereal tambourine. Johnnie Scott’s closing dual-flute coda – hello, Jethro Tull – does little to clear the picture or offer logical succour. Yet three tracks later his old swagger is back, as is his fixation with the Shirelles; “You’re Going To Lose That Girl” is yet another girl group tribute in which Lennon at least attempts to come across as bold and noble, though his warnings are ironically underscored by Ringo’s near freeform bongo playing, perhaps cleft in twain by the jarring key change which introduces Harrison’s distressingly magnificent guitar solo. “Watch what you do!” Paul and George warn him. “Yeah…” drawls Lennon offhandedly.

But then the ball and chain of rhythm returns with a vengeance on “Ticket To Ride,” at this stage the most extreme thing the Beatles had recorded (although clearly track 13 would also qualify from the McCartney perspective). Though its rumbling power gives a quite different picture from the Beatles to which we had previously been used, its dutifully stumbling rhythms indicate a group, or a writer/singer at least, no longer clear as to which path they are clearing. Despite all his pleads and protestations to the contrary, Lennon is now so deeply sunk into the floor of his own making that he can do nothing to stop her leaving; the whole song seems constructed to warp and wane his body such that he cannot rise upwards. And yet she is “riding so high,” in a place he cannot reach or penetrate; and so the song’s subtext expands to incorporate the immediate future of high flying, leaving the straight minded grounded (and thereby lays an unlikely path for Nick Drake; see “Betty” in “River Man,” the subject of “Cello Song,” etc.). The most audible protest Lennon is capable of offering in the song is his exhausted/exhilarated downhill slide of “Ahhhh!” as he dips to meet the final chorus. Thereafter there is nothing – not even the noble nothing of the final stretch of the Carpenters’ version – but to snigger/weep “My baby don’t care” (paving a way for “Pretty Vacant”?) as McCartney’s lead guitar slowly corrodes an already imperfect heart. The precedent for Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” is extremely evident in the song’s rhythmic construct, but Buckingham’s active uncaring in the passive seventies was as searing a scald as Lennon’s passive uncaring in the active sixties turned out to be. The performance is not quite heavy metal or even particularly redolent of a Who/Yardbirds inspiration, but could be said to be heavy metal in terms of its being in chains of imagined iron.

Following “Ticket”’s torpid tumult, Ringo’s cheery stroll through the unchained ironic misery of Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally” comes as very welcome light relief at the start of side two and is as perfect a peacekeeper for the album as Christine McVie’s “Songbird” would prove to be for Rumours; here, Starr seems to be saying, sadness is relative and one might as well face it with a grin and lots of labial lip rolls (“play the part so WELLLLL!!!!”).

Thereafter side two hits something of a lazy lull; as with the Hard Day’s Night soundtrack, only the songs on side one appear in the actual film, but at some points Help! does seem to kneel towards the floor of scraped outtakes. Lennon’s “It’s Only Love” is something of a throwaway piece, and its author treats it as such (in the phrase “bright…very bright” he audibly cracks up); only some early adventures with Harrison’s guitar and a Leslie cabinet take it out of the Hamburg/”Besame Mucho” days. Likewise, McCartney’s “Tell Me What You See” is thought to be a resuscitated early composition and sounds sixteen years old; elementary and not quite finished, a shockingly harsh Lennon/McCartney shrill of the title, underscored by a harsh tambourine rattle from Ringo (Help! features some near-demonic tambourine work throughout) leading to some fumbling electric piano from McCartney which in turn leads to nowhere in particular. McCartney’s voice is again low and menacing, although his emphasis on the phrase “Open up your eyes now” does indicate the road which would follow.

And then, suddenly, McCartney is jolted, or jolts himself, into life with “I’ve Just Seen A Face”; essentially McCartney’s take on Dylan’s style, it proceeds swiftly from its deceptive slow introduction to jumpcut gloriously between internal rhyming schemata and breathlessness born of justified optimism, clearly setting the scene for the further folk-rock (bordering on Mod) adventures to be undertaken throughout Rubber Soul.

Then, amidst this cutting room floor of a side, almost as the album peters to its end, we get “Yesterday.” Such an assertively unassuming song, so obstructively unobtrusive that McCartney kept it on ice for two straight Beatles albums and only reluctantly agreed for it to go on Help! as the album was on the point of being finished (George Martin has confirmed that McCartney wrote the song at the beginning of 1964), partly because he was unsure whether he had subconsciously plagiarised an old standard; indeed, by the time of its recording he was on the verge of offering the song to Billy J Kramer. For a song which appears to disclose and sum up all of the angst and doubt to which the other songs on the album have led, and for the one Beatles song which would unquestionably have appealed to and been understood by even the starchiest of Sound Of Music appreciators, “Yesterday” plays its cards remarkably close to its chest; it dwells in guilty semi-darkness (“There’s a shadow hanging over me”) and McCartney leaves George Martin’s typically Boswell-like string quartet arrangement – the raised eyebrow of the arched ‘cello figure in the first half of the second statement of the middle eight, the gently weeping high A of Sidney Sax’s lead violin sustained through two-thirds of the final verse – to speak the words he’s afraid even to hear (“Yesterday came suddenly,” “Why? She wouldn’t say,” “I said something wrong”). But the song not only summarises the multiplying shades of gloom which have been building up throughout Help! but also confirms that there is no answer save to evade answers (since all answers would require explanations); Lennon states that he’s got to hide his love away, McCartney reluctantly concurs that he too needs a place to hide away, possibly even from the other Beatles. As with a surprising number of the songs on side two in particular, one wonders whether this could have been transposed directly in a time machine from the 1968 White Album sessions (and certainly neither its evasive elegy nor its ‘cello lines were disregarded by the Nick Drake of 1968).

But then Harrison’s clanging alarm bell guitar wakes us all up – no, we can’t finish like this – to commence a deranged rampage through “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”; Lennon’s screams are more wild than high but he is determined to reinject life into the corpus of limp guilt; he roars and whoops with something resembling joy on a branch line stretching out between Freddy Cannon and Iggy while Harrison will not let go of his clingy clangs and McCartney takes a turn on the Fender Rhodes punp. The last of the great album closer Beatles rave-up covers, and a signpost that the adventure is on again, the beach now as alive, or more so, than the hills.

Monday, 15 June 2009

ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK: The Sound Of Music


(#42: 5 June 1965, 10 weeks; 16 October 1965, 10 weeks; 19 February 1966, 10 weeks; 25 June 1966, 7 weeks; 1 October 1966, 18 weeks; 25 March 1967, 7 weeks; 20 May 1967, 1 week; 3 June 1967, 1 week; 18 November 1967, 1 week; 2 December 1967, 3 weeks; 27 January 1968, 1 week; 23 November 1968, 1 week)

Track listing: Prelude and The Sound Of Music/Overture and Preludium (Dixit Dominus)/Morning Hymn and Alleluia/Maria/I Have Confidence In Me/Sixteen Going On Seventeen/My Favourite Things/Climb Ev’ry Mountain/The Lonely Goatherd/The Sound Of Music/Do-Re-Mi/Something Good/Processional and Maria/Edelweiss/So Long, Farewell/Climb Ev’ry Mountain (Reprise)

Sometime in 2002 or possibly even early 2003 – the times were hard enough still to blur exactness - I watched the film Last Night on late night television; it was one of those films I only intended to half-watch before turning into bed but something compelled me to stay with it. Briefly, the world is coming to an end, possibly about to be swallowed by the sun, and we see a not too disparate group of people in this city patiently going about preparations for their final hours, mostly without panic or evident distress; not scuttling into bunkers, for that would be fruitless, but trying to have as nice a final time as possible.

But there is this man, Patrick, sitting on the roof of this building, and who significantly is played by Don McKellar, the film’s director, who is simply waiting to die, and off whom the viewer’s eyes or minds cannot be taken; he is a recently and prematurely bereaved widower living in an open air tomb, surrounded by purposeless memories of his former life, drinking himself into earnest oblivion. And there is this woman, Sandra, who has agreed a suicide pact with her husband (David Cronenberg) but for various reasons cannot get in touch with him. Ultimately Sandra and Patrick end up on the same roof; lacking any better alternative, they sip wine, place “Guantanamera” on the stereo, aim revolvers at each other’s temples and wait. But they can’t go through with it; something is pulling them back, perhaps the music, or more probably the slow realisation that they are attracted to each other. So instead of the modified suicide pact they kiss; the sun, which has steadily been growing brighter throughout the film (even though most of it takes place at night), fills the screen with white brilliance and the film ends.

But does the world end? Some years later I am inclined to believe that it doesn’t, but back then I wasn’t in a position to judge. It now seems to me the clearest of metaphors; it is Patrick’s world which is ending, which he wants to end, until the final resolution delivers him (and her) from the darkness and back into the light of a new and brighter dawn. Certainly in those darker days I was in no fit state even to realise that the city in which this rebirth was being played out was Toronto; prophecies don’t always come blaring and waving.

Some of this may go towards understanding why for me the most touching moments on The Sound Of Music soundtrack are those where Christopher Plummer – an actor born in Toronto – sings. This happens only three times; first, and most touchingly, on the reprise of the title song, after his children have found their collective voice and he takes a tentative lead at the end. His is the singing voice of an actor but thankfully – and possibly having learned some lessons from West Side Story - Robert Wise thought better than to dub him; he sings like a child learning to speak for the first time, hesitant and nervous, but when he reaches the crucial lines “I know I will hear what I heard before” and “and I’ll sing once more” and the widower is returned it is impossible for me not to be moved. Here is another of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s post-Rochester superficial beasts whose inner beauty only needs to be coaxed out by the right Jane. Then, in the duet “Something Good,” we reach the equivalent of Rochester ’s marriage proposal. “Nothing comes from nothing…nothing ever could,” Andrews and Plummer reassure each other as their voices slowly stretch out the syllables to the point of quietly euphoric non-/co-existence. Finally, in the defiant reversal (melodically, harmonically and thematically) of the Horst Wessel Song that is “Edelweiss,” he finds his truer and nobler self.

Never mind the implausibility of an Austrian Navy admiral, since this is a fairytale (albeit one grounded in historical reality, but this is Cupid and Psyche, complete with mountain top); Plummer’s Baron is no realer an admiral than the ancient madman firing cannonballs over the roofs of Kensington in Mary Poppins, but is Andrews’ Maria any more substantial a figure than Poppins? So many of the show’s songs are list songs, but most of them come to the same conclusion; after spending three minutes unsuccessfully trying to pin down the character of Maria in “Maria,” the nuns come to the moderately aghast revelation: “She’s a girl!,” and the Cupid and Psyche comparisons run deeper, since this Maria, much more so (if necessarily more fantastic) than the one of West Side Story, is a signifier, a channel of subtexts, a personification of the word “girl,” just ahead of Lennon’s remarkably similar musings on the same subject (see entry #44) and a generation ahead of Green Gartside’s (#319).

But more than that, this Maria appears to be the personification of music. Although the show, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s final one, plays as a pocket summary of their work to date, since the Rochester-Eyre analogy also appears, with varying success, in The King And I and South Pacific, the plot is essentially that of South Pacific seen from the other, darker end of the telescope (Emile goes off to sea to fight, the Baron goes off to avoid fighting at sea, and both do the right thing), the climactic anthem of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” is a more formalised variant on “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and the jaunty bounce of “The Lonely Goatherd” and “Do-Re-Mi” both still unavoidably conjure up the plains of Oklahoma! (both are basically bierkeller hoedowns), I cannot recall another preceding major stage musical so concerned with the nature of music itself; certainly Sondheim and others would go on to develop that template but there are no clear precedents (The Music Man does not count but it was fitting that Robert Preston and Julie Andrews should finally meet up in the 1982 environs of Victor/Victoria). The sprite of Maria can only come to life with music, and uses music to bring others back to life. She is lost in music but finds the world again through music.

Is Maria Music? The first sound we hear on the record is birdsong, and slowly the disparate elements of a song build up to reveal her butterfly at its brilliant centre. On “Do-Re-Mi” the modal acoustic guitar introduction sounds strikingly 1965 but MetaMaria is analysing her own elements, explaining how every single one of her aorta work and function together to power a human life, how each individual element of the song she is singing blends and unites to form the song she is singing; not so much deconstruction of music, but more reconstruction. With swift happiness (or with the happiness of a swift?) she brings the children into her orbit.

Even as a spirit, however, Maria is not infallible or insensitive; “My Favourite Things” – another song of lists attempting to make a sense of life out of disparate factors and also a song not forgetting that the first four letters of the word “listen” make “list” – is a song of defiance aimed at her own underlying fear (in a different Sound Of Music it might have been sung by Anne Frank), and it is worth noting that the diatonic point where A minor reluctantly blinks its way into F major seventh (the “bad” of “then I don’t feel so bad”) was the basis of Coltrane’s famous improvisation on the song.

(And for many Coltrane was the embodiment of music as sprite/spirit, living and breathing music to the exclusion of all else, including, finally, his own life; as Frank Lowe has remarked, how hard is it to visualise Coltrane at home on a Saturday afternoon, beer in hand, watching the football? But in 1965, as with so much else seemingly diametrically opposed to The Sound Of Music – from Godard to Ballard, from Berio to Reich – Coltrane’s art was pushing furiously towards a future, coming out of A Love Supreme and stretching its post-Monk modes towards the troubled semi-freedoms of Ascension and Kulu Se Mama)

Stretching another barely stretchable point, there is even congruence between Coltrane’s modal hymnologies – the literal declamation of Part Four of A Love Supreme – and the opening nuns’ choruses which seem to be occurring in a Salzburg which never knew a Mozart (but Maria as Mozart and Baron von Trapp as Salieri, only a couple of centuries out of place?). Perhaps as an in joke, one of these nuns is Marni Nixon, the singer who voiced the part in the film of My Fair Lady which most felt should have gone to Andrews rather than Hepburn (but Andrews got the Oscar for Poppins anyway). There is a hint of “devil’s music” exasperation about their initial reading of “Maria” and perhaps this is what has led misleading commentators throughout the ages to declare the supposedly crushing success of The Sound Of Music as a decisive, populist reaction; the yes vote for continuation of the old faced with the uncertainty of the new (Civil Rights, Beatles, it was all understandable and you knew where you were, etc.; not a feeling unknown either in a Britain which had recently lost its Churchill and whose citizens didn’t necessarily all know or like where they were heading).

That the soundtrack album spent a total of 70 weeks at number one between mid-1965 and late 1968, a total bettered only by South Pacific – for comparison purposes, the single at number one during its first week at the top was Sandie Shaw’s never-chirpier “Long Live Love” while its last week was echoed, tellingly, by Hugo Montenegro’s recording of Morricone’s theme from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly – cannot be denied or avoided. This would not have happened without a general craving for stability, but given that my mother took me to see the film in the local cinema (the George in Bellshill, long gone) at least three times in my extreme youth its renewable appeal was eminently understandable (and if, like my mother, you had lived in the horrific middle of World War II, you would doubly understand it) – and this does not even take into account its subsequent, camper life as a dressing up karaoke repertory cinema perennial.

But stability and conservatism do not always imply maltreated horses or Margaret Thatcher. As we will go on to see, The Sound Of Music tended to keep the number one seat warm when the big boys (and they were always boys at this stage) didn’t have something new out, so this very feminine stability helped balance the testosterone rush developing elsewhere. In addition, it is wrong to deride it for imagined stuffed shirtness. Consider that the musical is about a free spirit who repeatedly finds joy and revelation in natural things rather than man-made ones – listen to those lists in “My Favourite Things” again and compare and contrast with the all too human ones in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” – who comes brandishing an acoustic guitar and singing of flowers and birds in order to shake up a complacent and confused middle-aged man; and consider how remarkable this was coming from the pen of a lyricist who essentially did not live to see the sixties. As with the less-than-subtle central anti-materialist subtext of Mary Poppins, we are faced with something which appears to offer reassurance at a time when much, for many, was drifting apart but in fact predicates what would eventually usurp them as the decade proceeded onwards.

And, as with Mary Poppins, Andrews’ protagonist isn’t quite as uncomplicated as she appears. Her “I Have Confidence In Me” seems to me the record’s key performance; she is in fact paralysed by the newly granted uncertainty that comes with problematic freedom but does her best to square herself with a round world. Her bountiful delivery progressively becomes more unhinged in its forced joy, and the music bounces off rubber walls of rhetorical triplets of high notes and rhythm in a way that is more disturbing than merely overcompensating for an essential lack of confidence. By the time Andrews screams out “WAKE UP – IT’S HEALTHY!” she almost sounds as though she’s proclaiming “Wake up – it’s Hell.” Lena perceives some kinship with Kate Bush in this performance; these steeply sprinting bounds which would in time rematerialise in songs like “Hounds Of Love” balanced with the petrified near-silence of Andrews’ quiet, paused “Oh, help!” See also her bafflement throughout “Something Good”; although it is impossible to imagine Andrews doing so much as steal an apple off a greengrocer’s cart, the song does impose the question of how and why Maria came to the abbey in the first place (although the rest of the show does not really address this issue).

But Music alone cannot shut out the wider and darker world. Though it comes early on in the song sequence, Dan Truhitte and Charmian Carr’s “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” is decidedly creepy in a proto-jackboot manner; here girls are but empty pages for men to write upon, and note the mild dissonance and less mild sense of dread which accompany the “face” and “world” of the line “face a world of men” as well as the second syllables of “I’ll” and “care” in the chorus line “I’ll take care of you.” Given that the only logical sequel to this song would be the rueful self-realisation of Cooke’s “Only Sixteen,” it is scarcely surprising that Rolf, the boy singing the song, goes on to join the Nazis and only helps the von Trapps escape at film’s end with some marked reluctance (a less complex struggle with the evil other than represented in Carousel).

Still, the show’s ending, as represented on this album, is one of the grimmest of any Rodgers and Hammerstein show, despite being a “happy” ending. The perky marionettism of “So Long, Farewell” gradually resolves into a dirge of ineffable loss (“I’m glad to go”), underlining that by fleeing they are losing everything, though in a different, less fatal way than if they had stayed, and the closing choral reprise of “Mountain” sees them fled, somewhere (as Rodgers implies in one of his sleevenote quotes) between Parsifal and My Fair Lady. Dylan may wander, but he literally brings all of his stories back home; whereas the von Trapps are left with no home. There is never any doubt that they will find a new one, but it will not be quite the same home, not really the same life. And, of course, it is impossible to detach the subtext from “So Long, Farewell” of this being Hammerstein’s, and maybe Rodgers’, last throw of the dice. Despite strong individual songs, none of Rodgers’ post-Hammerstein musicals (No Strings, Two By Two, I Remember Mama etc.) made any lasting splash; Cabaret turned out to be a better and more truthful, if less ostensibly placatory, sequel to The Sound Of Music; and the sixties carried on as they would always have done. Think of The Sound Of Music as a generous, if rueful, handshake, a passing of a hard won torch, from one world to its successor, a warm guardian standing at the gate of the sixties, testing commitment and maybe even humanity. Think also that Jane Eyre was indeed spoken of as a fairy, a sprite (and a salamander, but all Rochesters have their wall of protection ready to be gently broken down); but above all, think of “Guantanamera” on that early morning roof in Toronto, how something changed in that air and how long I would have to wait until I realised that the air was not excluding me from its moonbeam song.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Bob DYLAN: Bringing It All Back Home


(#41: 29 May 1965, 1 week)

Track listing: Subterranean Homesick Blues/She Belongs To Me/Maggie’s Farm/Love Minus Zero/Outlaw Blues/On The Road Again/Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream/Mr Tambourine Man/Gates Of Eden /It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)/It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

(Author’s Note #1: Although I mention her regularly and acknowledge her thoughts and perspectives where indicated, I do feel it incumbent upon myself to acknowledge the vast help offered to me in the course of compiling this tale by my dear wife, Lena Friesen. Listening to these albums anew as a couple has elicited and provoked insights which otherwise would have been inaccessible to me. In particular I must highlight the immense contribution that Lena has made to the analysis of the Dylan albums, records which have been in her family all her life and with which she familiarised herself thoroughly as a child growing up in California; practically all of the following thoughts, and most of the thoughts expressed in entry #40, come from her and it has largely and merely been my job to document them and incorporate them accordingly.)

(Author’s Note #2: I have been a stickler for listing track titles as they appear on whatever edition of the album I happen to be using. For this essay I used the standard CD edition of Bringing It All Back Home where only the first half, or top half, of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” is listed as a title.)

If, according to Hemingway, American literature starts (and perhaps finishes) with The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, then it is right that Bringing It All Back Home, a record with which for many an entire culture starts, should essentially document its author as a Finn for his time; a dissatisfied, mischievous and fundamentally melancholy renegade fleeing his previous cultural/familial bonds, running into increasingly unlikely adventures but always surviving and sometimes thriving. It’s easy enough to accept chaos if you are its deliberate creator.

But let us talk briefly of Kanye West, and not merely – or at all - because of “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” whose provenance, part Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business,” part Guthrie and Seeger’s “Taking It Easy” and part Kerouac passim, is far more interesting for the ways in which its various elements are mixed and remixed than for being any supposed precedent to rap; in fact the song, as with several others on the album’s “electric” side, though musically inspired by the example set (and reset) by the Beatles, has far more in common with the Stones and the angle at which they were coming towards Chuck Berry’s history. Likewise the unperched swoops which Dylan’s scarred scarlet vulture of an “I” makes towards “Maggie’s Farm” and its underpinning swing seem directly inspired by the Stones’ “It’s All Over Now.”

But back to Kanye, a musician who has recently aroused some controversy by not being what he is expected to be, someone whose art and expression cannot necessarily be contained within the milieu in which his art became formed. As electricity was to Dylan so is the Autotune to Kanye; a tool with which to further his art (and, by hopeful extension, all art), to articulate things which protest folk and hip hop could not allow. More to the point, Dylan’s more than menacing and essentially one note baritone vocal line on “It’s Alright, Ma” presages some of the passages on 808s And Heartbreak to a surprising degree.

Yet – just as Kanye’s rediscovery of his “real” voice on Estelle’s “American Boy” and Keri Hilson’s “Knock You Down” provides a liberating conduit out of doom – Dylan’s natural good humour gets him out of sundry scrapes; his post-Moby Dick wanderings through an America which doesn’t quite want or know how to accommodate him on “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” have the reckless rumbustiousness of a Stephen Malkmus (whose remark “Between here and there is better than anything over there!” on Pavement’s “Conduit For Sale” is particularly relevant here); he’s repeatedly arrested, beaten up, thrown out of windows but gets back to his ship in good time to wish good luck to the hapless, incoming Columbus.

Musically, too, the electric arrangements are horizontally active rather than vertically deep; the crosstown traffic of interweaving guitar commentaries across “Maggie’s Farm” or “115th Dream” never freezes up into a cluster while there is a modestly exultant rhythmic bounce throughout side one which derives from Presley far more than Lennon and McCartney, and Dylan responds acutely to this when required, for instance in “On The Road Again,” when he exclaims “There’s a HOLE! WHERE! MY STOMACH DISAPPEARS!!” in mock outrage and genuine astonishment that some people still choose to remain in a place which he himself has long decamped, and again at song’s end where his anguished yet defiant “HOW COME YOU DON’T MO-OVE?” streaks the skies of complacency like an unanswerable comet. And yet the musicians are capable of exquisite tenderness where needed, so that “She Belongs To Me” and “Love Minus Zero,” two would-be love songs whose subjects appear slightly ungraspable, as though he is singing more of an ideal than an actual person, are supported by a reliably resonant but profound backdrop.

If this piece has shied away somewhat from discussing the album’s lyrics in greater detail it is only because almost half a century of deafening deconstruction on the parts of hundreds, or indeed thousands, has gone into doing so. Similarly the above remarks offer little clue as to exactly how shocking and, in some cases, insulting an impact this album had in 1965, and in particular the Britain of 1965. It is sobering to remember that Dylan’s initial commercial impact in this country came in something of a collective rush; “The Times They Are A-Changin’” did not chart as a single in the UK until the spring of 1965, and its run overlapped with that of “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Likewise, all of Dylan’s back catalogue appeared or reappeared, largely together, in the album chart throughout April and May. We were getting the back story and the advance all at once, and the impact was disorientating; no sooner had he become fixed as a protest singer for our age of convenience than he was running away from solutions and slogans towards a dextrous mix of emotional/symbolic ambiguity and sheer glee. Unlike the Beatles he could and would not be pinned down (and the Beatles were already learning from his example how to unpin themselves). From earnest Hentoff sleevenotes to semi-abstract self-penned essays, part ee cummings and part Mingus, from answers blowing in the wind to…well, there was the rub; where had he ever offered answers? And the division of demolition on Bringing It All Back Home is not so securely fixed. Side one may sound like Dylan trashing Seeger’s front porch – and the obvious allegory of “Maggie’s Farm” and the less obvious one of “Outlaw Blues” also point to this – but the balance between physical volume and writerly sharpness is not lost; “Subterranean Homesick Blues” sounds and feels random but its observations are as deftly and delicately pitched as “Masters Of War” albeit delivered a couple of dozen times faster.

It may well be, however, that side two – the “reassuring” acoustic side – houses, both emotionally and structurally, the more radical music. The original “Mr Tambourine Man,” for example, calls up the Beatles (and specifically Lennon) far more readily than anything on side one (although both perspective and delivery of “Love Minus Zero” perhaps point sideways or backwards to “She’s A Woman”) and in terms of its patient, itemised demanding of the infinite looks forward to “Imagine” as surely as it looks back to “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (the song is the post-apocalypse positive to “Hard Rain”’s negative). So it was only natural for the Byrds to take the song’s chorus and second verse alone (again, Dylan had set the precedent with his reconstruction of “Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance”) and turn it into luminous, chiming, era-inventing pop; perhaps the first pop music that could truly be termed “post-Beatle.” “Gates Of Eden” in contrast is a paradise achieved, or at least dreamed, with the knowledge of its own mortality bordering upon non-existence (or anti-existence), but musically is most remarkable for Dylan’s snarling octave leaps; above all else, his more exposed voice on side two reminds us just how instrumental he was in deconstructing the accepted norm of popular singing. The timbre and grain of his voice are as alien yet as finally natural as the saxophones of Coleman or Ayler, though aesthetically he is far closer to Ornette in the sense of establishing a complete, self-contained new world within music. Note, too, the rhetorical rumblings of his bottom two guitar strings at certain key strategic points in the song (for instance, when following the couplet “The savage soldier sticks his head in sand/And then complains”). Here is a clear possible genesis for the humorously imagined lands of ideal which would subsequently best be articulated by Leonard Cohen, whether in the positive (“Tower Of Song”) or the negative (“Waiting For A Miracle”).

“It’s Alright, Ma” meanwhile sounds like nothing else that has preceded it in this story. Its acres of quotes which have succumbed to the common parlance need not be reproduced or further delineated here, but there is a striking, sinister darkness about its alleged confidence, Dylan’s low voice stalking rather than conspiratorial, that takes it into a non-light which neither the Beatles nor the Stones had yet reached or penetrated at this time. Its insistently mordant modality looks forward to both Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac, and yet the traveller himself is not (yet?) Marcus’ Worried Man; this is rather his farewell to the past and the culture which have spawned him and which he now needs to abandon in order to live. His eye on the world is not shorn of its necessary wink, however; we need not worry about him, he reassures us, his running distance is unlimited. Finally, a rueful goodbye; “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” sees him shutting the door firmly on the lobby marked The Future Of Civilisation. He’ll run forever if he has to, and live an enjoyable and provocative life into the bargain – indeed it’s the central part of Dylan’s bargain – but don’t look to him any more than you’d look at LBJ on the cover of Time, or Curtis Mayfield or Eric von Schmidt or Robert Johnson or Joan Baez or any of the other adornments screwed into that keyhole of an album sleeve design for a solution; even before the sixties are halfway through, he is warning us that we are already on our own even as he, as Malkmus would go on to say, taking a rotten old tree and making it bear fruit.

But then how was he to know of the trembling distant voice ready to startle his sleeping ears in the belief that she has found him?

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Bob DYLAN: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan


(#40: 17 April 1965, 1 week; 22 May 1965, 1 week)

Track listing: Blowin’ In The Wind/Girl From The North Country/Masters Of War/Down The Highway/Bob Dylan’s Blues/A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall/Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right/Bob Dylan’s Dream/Oxford Town/Talkin’ World War III Blues/Corrina, Corrina/Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance/I Shall Be Free

How apt that the most singular album in this tale to date should begin with a song whose origins stretch back to Canada. “Blowin’ In The Wind” was inspired by the spiritual “No More Auction Block,” a song popular among the former black slaves who had fled to Canada following Britain ’s abolition of slavery in 1833. Dylan’s delivery is straight, earnest, dedicated and direct, his steadfast-verging-on-stubborn low tenor slightly reminiscent of Johnny Cash. Already, however, there are signs that what we are hearing does not quite match up with what we get; it was to become a typical characteristic of Dylan’s evasive genius that a song which would go on to have an incalculable impact on both popular culture and the wider world should be so determinedly non-committal and ambiguous; foreshadowing Lennon’s patiently subversive list of demands in “Imagine,” Dylan asks a series of rhetorical questions (in Homeric/Ciceronian triplicate) and leaves us to come up with the answers, or indeed the single answer which may answer all of his questions. The song offers no bouquets of reassurance; it is protesting at us, rather than for us.

A similar process of patience works its way through Dylan’s second album and it is indicative of the presence of true genius that its impact was to be so gradual and osmotic. The thirteen songs collected here were recorded (along with many unreleased others such as “Talkin’ John Birch ‘Paranoid’ Blues”) over a 12-month period between April 1962 and April 1963, a period which incorporated the Cuban missile crisis (and Dylan is keen not to let us forget its existence) and trips by Dylan himself to London and Rome. The record was issued in May 1963, did not enter the British charts until May 1964 and took nearly a year to climb to number one. During that time his influence had already seeped its way into the work of the Beatles and others, and it is instructive to go back to the source in light of its subsequent adaptations (see entries #37-8) and Dylan’s own reaction to the latter (see entry #41).

It is also a pleasure to read Nat Hentoff’s detailed and informed, if characteristically slightly sentimental, sleevenote as a respite from the tower of PR babble with which this tale has become all too familiar. Looking at the monochrome shots of Dylan, at work in the studio, there radiates a single-minded (yet community-earthed) intensity highly reminiscent of Coltrane (as a glance at the sleeve photos on the latter’s Ascension will demonstrate). This was serious stuff; yet the joy of Freewheelin’ lies in how Dylan systematically subverts the seriousness through its passage.

“Girl From The North Country” was derived from the arrangement of “Scarborough Fair” which Martin Carthy variously showed to both Dylan and Paul Simon when they visited Britain but Dylan’s adaptation is far subtler and slyer. His delivery is not quite as straight as it was on “Blowin’ In The Wind”; he is already offering startling intervallic octave leaps – a kind of halfway house between post-Yoruba field chants and Hank Williams yodel – and introducing his idiosyncratic sliding scale of phrasing (not to mention the “A” pronounced as in the letter of “A true love of mine”). Note also the contrast of “In the darkness of my night/In the brightness of my day” in light of McCartney’s subsequent “And I Love Her.”

“Masters Of War” brings out the shadows of “Blowin’” into a public light. Any ambiguity is abandoned here and the directness and harshness of both words and performance – over a modal waltz figure which Lennon would later adapt as the basis of “Norwegian Wood” – are as shocking today as they must have been forty-five years ago. Dylan’s voice has now little to do with coffee house politesse – hear the “Hide behind WALLS!” that he howls at an early point – and via the ingenious double metaphor of water running down the drain and blood running through the masters’ veins we attain a despair which belies the singer’s insistence on his youth; so young yet so exhausted, wishing the would-be destroyers an early and swift death. Some theatricalism is evident but its unabated and unassuaged fury has no real precedent in this tale, although its musical roots lie in the English Civil War lay “ Nottamun Town,” and recordings of the latter by Bert Jansch and Fairport Convention later in the sixties have Dylan’s setting coursing with moderate but clear wildness through their veins.

On a musical level “Down The Highway” is perhaps more radical still. It follows the classic twelve-bar blues structure but Dylan’s comments in the notes about the fundamental mistake of interpreters of the blues being that they try to get inside the blues rather than get outside their troubles remain pertinent. At several points he mentions Big Joe Williams’ drolly sombre style as a major influence, but everything about “Down The Highway” points to unexpected futures. The opening, wriggling out of tempo guitar figures, as well as the strikingly distended aspect Dylan’s voice lends to the couplet “Well, meet me in the middle of the ocean/And we’ll leave this ol’ highway behind,” directly anticipate Hendrix. The giggling and yodelling accompanying the line “Ain’t got much more to lose” are more in keeping with Stan Freberg than Hank Williams. The tag line descents (“Lord, she took it away to Italy – Italy!” he repeats, astounded at his own echo as well as co-cover star Suze Rotolo’s decision to move there for a prolonged period) have a pleasing gruff dismissiveness which would subsequently be developed and mutated by Beefheart. There may even be a hint of 50 Cent through Dylan’s occasional monotonal moroseness, but in general his vocal performance, moving through hiccups and octave vaults, might rightly be said to presage Tim Buckley. And he leaves us in no doubt that he means to capture and represent the entire spirit of his country: “Yes, I'm a-walkin' down your highway/Just as far as my eyes can see/From the Golden Gate Bridge/All the way to the Statue of Liberty.”

“Bob Dylan’s Blues,” meanwhile, invents the indie slacker template which would only properly germinate three decades later with Daniel Johnston, Beck et al. "Unlike most of the songs nowadays've been written uptown in Tin Pan Alley - that's where most of the folk songs come from now days,” Dylan drawls at the beginning, “this is a song, this wasn't written up there - this was written somewhere down in the United States!” before launching into a hilarious fuck off litany ranging from the Lone Ranger and Tonto to six shooters and judges, with impeccable comic timing, the final, climactic “Yes!” being but the funniest example. Let the whole of society be blown in the wind.

Then, without warning, we proceed directly to “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and realise that we are in the presence of a vivid visionary. Again, perhaps the most remarkable facet of Dylan’s performance here is his patience; he does not rush through his forest of mirrored metaphors but gives us time to consider each increasingly horrific sight as he proceeds. The immediate inspiration – the Cuban missile crisis and the medieval Anglo-Scots ballad “Lord Randall” notwithstanding - would seem to be Ginsberg’s Howl, the underlying model inescapably Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass if we are speaking of the containment of all multitudes. But if, as Lester Bangs noted, the optimal musical accompaniment to Howl (pace the Kronos Quartet) would be Coltrane’s “ Africa ,” “A Hard Rain” needs only Dylan’s unavoidable, intimately global presence to work, since the focus has firmly to be on the words. As a song of personalised (as in internal, encrypted) protest its only real sixties parallel is “I Am The Walrus.” And yet, despite the song’s introduction of the rain metaphor which would become dominant as history progressed – Fogerty’s “Who’ll Stop The Rain?” being only one subsequent example – it still carries hope, however battered; Dylan’s reporter will continue to wander and report and walk through the valleys of not yet pacified pain, possibly beyond the world’s end. The song’s ramifications are vast, its procession of alternately condensed and expanded metaphors deftly handled, its implications ranging far beyond the scope of the thirty-nine albums previously discussed in this study, perhaps even beyond music.

If side one is the album’s “dark” side, side two lets in the light, even with the darkest of subjects. “Don’t Think Twice” is taken very carefully for one of the most acidic and defeated of Dylan’s long line of end-of-the-affair dissection songs, though its fleet guitar topline work may suggest the assistance of studio guitarist Bruce Langhorne with the recording. Inspired by and borrowing liberally from Paul Clayton’s 1960 song “Who’s Goin’ To Buy You Ribbons When I’m Gone?” (although Clayton did teach the song to Dylan), “Don’t Think Twice” goes some way beyond its inspiration; here Dylan is clearly clutching at useless consolations, talking far more to himself than to his departed Other, though note the Droopy whine of “I never KNOWED!” and the general misleading lightness of touch, both of which were to have an immediate effect on the lyrics of Lennon and the guitar work of Harrison.

“Bob Dylan’s Dream” was inspired by the Victorian song “Lady Franklin’s Lament,” another song taught to him by Carthy during his winter 1962 visit to London, but Dylan transfers the latter’s Arctic mourning into perhaps the record’s most touching moment, a reminiscence of hanging out with the artist shortly to be known as Wavy Gravy in New York in 1961, his eyes already half damp in remembrance of better and more innocent times, a life never to be recaptured – and yet Dylan was still only twenty-two; still, would a new and uninformed listener earmark Astral Weeks as the work of a 23-year-old? How long does it take for some lives to be lived? Ask the 13/14-year-old Springsteen of 1963 that question, and then listen to Nebraska.

“ Oxford Town ” swiftly deals with the James Meredith/Mississippi campus riots affair; Dylan’s delivery is half jokey but the undertow deadly serious; this is the album’s only directly “topical” number (“Somebody better investigate soon!”) and suggests that Dylan was wise to move towards a more encompassing approach. “Talkin’ World War III Blues” in contrast is “A Hard Rain” in reverse image and the album’s most remarkable track as well as its funniest; here Dylan realises that the only way to confront the destructive nonsense of the world is to counterbalance with creative anti-sense. Finally he emerges from his chrysalis to form the Dylan of Highway 61 and Blonde On Blonde as he reports his post-apocalypse dream, a crumbling slapstick backdrop of reluctant partners, other sole survivors who think he’s a Communist, unpaid radio bills, Cadillacs (“Good car to drive…after a war”) and speaking clocks. Again his timing is immaculate and hilarious (regularly punctuated by some especially droll harmonica blasts). Those who imagine that Dizzee Rascal’s “Bonkers” has no precedent would do well to re-examine this song, with its extended, deliberate confusion between waking and dreaming, and even unto its song-within-a-song irruption; whereas on “Bonkers” the cheery post-2 Step song which drifts onto the radio (“Go with the flow” etc.) is abruptly interrupted by Dizzee’s impetuous “Back in, back IN!,” the equivalent moment on “Talkin’” comes when Dylan turns on his record player to listen to “Rock-A-Day, Johnny singin’, tell your ma, tell your pa, our loves are gonna grow ooh-wah ooh-wah,” the last five syllables blending into a descending murmur of informed disinterest. Unlike “Bonkers,” however, there are other people present; the psychiatrist to whom Dylan is narrating the dream exclaims that he has had the same dream but that only he was in it, and Dylan extends the anti-Spartacus metaphor to mourn all the people walking around in the 1962 world recognising only their own dreams. He cites Lincoln before offering “I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours” and then, almost offhand, adding “I said that.”

“Corrina, Corrina” is the only track on the album to use a band – so varied and startling have Dylan’s approaches been that we frequently forget that this is largely a solo recording – and perhaps suffers from over-familiarity (as it seems that every American musician in the early sixties was obliged to record the song) and a sense of padding (the band includes such unlikely rockers as pianist/jazz historian Dick Wellstood and the recently departed Condon bassist Leonard Gaskin); although Dylan is appositely grieving – his accent on “I just can’t keeeeeep from cryin’” for instance – there is a slight sense of detachment about his performance. This is not something that can be said of “Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance”; unlike previous misreaders of the minstrel show tradition, here is an example of something entirely new being created from existing material. Composed and recorded by Henry Thomas in 1927 – the original can currently be found on the Document compilation Ragtime Texas: Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order 1927-1929 – Dylan does not precisely cover Thomas’ original; rather, he largely discards Thomas’ verses, doubles the song’s tempo and uses the chorus as a jump-off for his own fanciful flights. This is Dylan’s most remarkable vocal performance on the album, full of snaps, cackles and whirled whoops – some highly reminiscent of the Coasters on tracks like “Young Blood” - almost turning the blues into an abstract untruth and worlds away from the conscientious student singing “Blowin’ In The Wind” some forty-five minutes previously.

The closing “I Shall Be Free” sees the future Dylan fully formed, and happy with it; here is the hipster, relaxing and slacking out shaggy dog stories like overwarm Bazooka Joe bubblegum, secure in the knowledge that faced with the prospect of imminent apocalypse, shouting nonsense in the face of authority, or at least drawling it, is the best protection and attack; JFK rings him up (how did that sound in the Britain of 1965?) asking for advice and Dylan recommends bringing in Brigitte Bardot, Anita Ekberg and Sophia Loren and then putting them in the same room as Ernest Borgnine (“Country will grow!” he gruffly reassures the President). Here the rhetorical poetical quattrain makes itself known (honeymooner, June crooner, spoon feeder, natural leader; bagels, pizza, chit’lins, a muttered “bullshit”). A man comes on the television two years ahead of “Satisfaction” and Dylan considers Yul Brynner, Willie Mays, Charles de Gaulle and Robert Louis Stevenson as reasonable alternatives to hair oil. Attending to his delivery here, while one recognises the Guthrie/Elliott precedents (though Ida Cox may be a more fitting, if more surprising, comparison point vocally), I do wonder whether the influence of Lonnie Donegan may perhaps have travelled in reverse (try Dylan’s “Well, I gotta woman, sleeps on the cot” next to Donegan’s “Well, I gotta gal, six feet tall” on “Cumberland Gap,” even though both have the same uncommon antecedent). His final words to a world waiting for protest and revelation? “I catch dinosaurs! I make love to Elizabeth Taylor! Catch hell from Richard Burton!” As with everything else about this, the most significant and unique album to be discussed in this tale thus far, it gives the impression of elemental earth converting gladly into electricity, and the future, permanent blocking of all undue auctions.