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 is, 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?