Friday, May 17, 2013

Bob Dylan's Top-Five Songs Beginning with "T"

1. “Tangled Up in Blue” (1975).  Dig (as “Lenny Bruce” might’ve said): In 1985 I drove “out west” with a red-haired woman (let’s call her Miss X) who was “married, soon to be divorced.”  A U-haul trailer full of her stuff was killing my car’s transmission alive, but otherwise I did not use “a little too much force.”  Sometimes I wish I had.  I definitely sometimes wonder whether “her hair is still red.”  During our road trip, we stopped in at the Milltown Union Bar made famous by Richard Hugo in the poem of the same name.  We bribed a motel maid in Wyoming to let us overstay our checkout to watch John Cassavetes‘ Love Steams, which just happened to be playing on HBO.  We spent a night in the Badlands made famous by Terrence Malick (and Charlie Sheen and Sissy Spacek) and Bruce Springsteen.  Once during my two-year stint in Seattle, she was my date for a solo Roger McGuinn show at the Backstage in Ballard, WA, and therefore shared with me the pleasure of hearing Byrds-lite performances of “My Back Pages,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and (approximately ten years after its nightly roll in the Rolling Thunder Review) “Chestnut Mare.”  I got McGuinn’s autograph.  As far as I know, she did not ever work in a “topless joint,” and, to this day, I know nothing about her parents‘ attitude toward homemade dresses or bank accounts.  A few years later, I drifted down not to New Orleans but to Opelousas, which is just three hours north of it (i.e., close enough for jazz) and eventually saw lots of shows (three of them Dylan’s) in the Big Easy, Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Thibodeaux.  I never worked on a fishing boat, but I endured four or five “Hurricane”s (Katrina included).  I don’t know any Montague Streets, but for sure something inside of me has died, and I own a vinyl copy of Eddie Kendricks’ “Keep On Keepin’ On.”  None of my friends are mathematicians or carpenters’ or truck drivers’ wives--at least I hope not.  But it’s not dark yet, so, you know, there’s still time.  Do I ever wonder what’s going on with Miss X (besides hair-color changing, I mean) these days?  Sometimes.  In short, this song is the story of my so-called life.  I’d have it over “Brownsville Girl” any day.

2. “Tombstone Blues” (1965).  The “Papa’s in the alley, looking for the fuse” lyrics on Real Live are better than the Highway 61 Revisited originals that have papa “looking for food,” not only because fuse rhymes more precisely with blues but also because the ghost of electricity can howl in the bones of your face whereas you can’t live by bread alone because you won’t be satisfied.  Otherwise, either version will do.  “Stop all this weeping, / and swallow your pride.  You won’t / die.  It’s not poison”--besides prescribing the antidote to the disease of conceit--is haiku.  And although “Ma Rainey and Beethoven” is more interesting misheard as “My Iranian Beethoven,” the singer’s desire to “write a melody so plain” that it could function as an easing, cooling, analgesic that helps folks unlearn what they didn’t want to learn in the first place explains in part why he once told an interviewer he hopes he "never" paints his masterpiece. 

3. “This Dream of You” (2009).  First, listen to 1979’s “I Believe in You.”  “Don’t let me drift too far,” sings the newly reborn Dylan, touchingly illuminating the fear of apostasizing that haunts even the most obvious believers.  Skip ahead thirty years.  Dylan has drifted too far--from shore, from sure, you name it.  (A busted second shotgun marriage, a pile of second-or-third-rate albums, discovering the shallowness of American Evangelicalism, and a heart ailment resulting from inhaling too much chicken merde down on the farm will do that do a Voice of a Generation.)  But the dream--i.e., the memory--of that magic once-upon-a-time moment when the presence in a “cheerless room in a curtained gloom” couldn’t have been anybody else but Jesus persists and keeps Dylan hanging on like a Vanilla Fudge Supreme.  “There's a moment when all old things / Become new again,” sings the sixty-eight-year-old, now much craggier-voiced troubadour, paraphrasing the non-Minnesota Saint Paul in Second Corinthians 5:17.  “But that moment might have come and gone.”  He goes on to paraphrase Second Timothy 4:7  (“I’ll run this race until my earthly death”).  He’d admitted that he was a “little too blind to see” circa “Precious Angel,” but now by asking “Am I too blind to see?  Is my heart playing tricks on me?,” he’s questioning not only his own vision but that heart of his as well. He doesn’t want to believe, but he keeps believing.  He’s not so much hanging on to a solid rock as discovering that somehow the solid rock is hanging onto him.  No wonder come Tempest he was swearing to uphold the laws of God--and insisting that the blood with which he was paying was not his own.

4. “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” (1988).  It’s been common knowledge for so long that this song is a Springsteen spoof that people coming to it for the first time nowadays probably don’t find it all that funny.  But when The Traveling Wilburys Volume One was new, the audacity of the Old Dylan’s making unfiltered fun of the most famous New Dylan ever was unexpected enough to be flat-out hilarious.  That the Old Dylan’s fellow grizzled vets went gleefully along for the ride (and included a Beatle, an Electric Light Orchestrator, a charter member of the Only the Lonely Hearts Club Band, and that grizzled-vet-to-be Tom Petty) gave the sarcasm added cachet, as did the way the humor echoed the many punch lines of the similarly goofy trees with roots that the Old Dylan had once planted in the Band's basement.  The main difference?  He'd been so much older then; he was younger than that now.  And by christening this song's protagonist “Tweeter,” he obviously foresaw the Twitter world in a grain of sand.  (Follow me at    

5. “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love?)” (1985).  This song was a bona fide single (peaking at 103 on Billboard), with an MTV video featuring Dylan turning Japanese and everything.  And it’s rich, drawing upon everything from Puccini (“Madame Butterfly, she lulled me to sleep”), Gene Pitney (“in a town without pity where the water runs deep”), and Humphrey Bogart (“Well I had to move fast, / and I couldn’t with you around my neck") to Foreigner (“there’s a hot-blooded singer”), Hoagy Carmichael (“singin’ ‘Memphis in June’”), and overtly palace-of-the-Pope language (“Never could learn to drink that blood and call it wine”) that wouldn’t rear its head in Dylan’s lyrics again until the reference to the “mother of our Lord” in 2012’s “Duquesne Whistle.”  Atop a Sly Dunbar and Robbie “In the Alley” Shakespeare’s reggae-groove-with-benefits excavated from an Infidels outtake, Arthur Baker applies just enough techno-sheen to accentuate this song's many positives.  So why doesn’t "Tight Connection" appear on any of Dylan’s post-1985 compilations?  And why mightn't the Gary Cooper paraphrase that goes “What looks large from a distance /close up ain’t never that big” be a reference to the Dylan body part that itches in the third verse of “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight”?

Bob Dylan's Top-Five Songs Beginning with "S"

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

"Religion Today Bondage Tomorrow": A Bob Dylan Interview from 1983

(Click on the images--except for the last one, which for some reason is easier to read before clicking--to view the whole thing.)

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Bob Dylan's Top-Five Songs Beginning with "S"

1. “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” (1966).  The narrator may be stuck inside some place (either a city in Alabama or a gas station), but the music sure isn’t.  If anything, it’s rollin’ and tumblin’, with Al Kooper showing off his rapidly improving prowess on the organ to delightfully virtuosic effect.  The lyrics, meanwhile, evoke Stockholm Syndrome.  Not only does the “stuck” singer have a “debutante” to give him what he needs, but there are also ladies who go so far as to treat him kindly, among who are a French girl who brags about knowing knows him, a honky-tonk woman named Ruthie who wants him to come up and see her sometime so she can give him what he wants, and a Mona whose middle name may or may not be Lisa and who may or may not had the highway blues but who sure enough worries about the train tracks.  Frankly, Mobile sounds a lot like the home that’s not a house in which Judas Priest gets stranded and dies with a smile on his face.  Moral: Don’t go mistaking Memphis for that home across the road.    

2. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (1965).  Dylan’s spiking Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” with Beat-poet punch and cue-card synching to the resulting concoction in the coolest rock-and-roll video ever made is what makes this song subterranean.  That the “home” to which Dylan was “bringing it all back” is the same one to which he would have “no direction” just a few months later is what makes it blues. Cultural events of this magnitude do not happen every day.  

3. Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” (1978).  Nobody noticed back in 1978, but “Señor” is a term that those for whom Spanish is a loving tongue often use for “Lord.” Thus this eerie track may have been Dylan’s first song to Jesus.  Can’t blame folks for not noticing really, so preoccupied were they with all the negative reviews Street-Legal was getting.  In hindsight, however, “Let’s overturn these tables” and “Lincoln Country Road or Armageddon” come straight out of the Messianic complex while “Son, this ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing” foreshadows Slow Train Coming’s “In order to dream you got to still be asleep.”  As for “Tales of Yankee Power,” it may have simply been an insider-baseball reference to “Catfish” Hunter’s million-dollar right arm.  Or a red herring.

4. “Sweetheart like You” (1983).  This song was a bona fide single (peaking at fifty-five on Billboard), with an MTV video featuring Carla Olson finger-synching a Mark Knopfler guitar solo and everything.  And it’s rich, drawing upon everything from Samuel Johnson (“They say that patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings”) to the overtly New Testament language that had dominated the S-album trilogy (“They say in your Father’s house there’s many mansions”) to cast a smoky seduction spell over a precious angel who, according to the seducer (and to the affront of some feminist critics), would be better off “at home ... taking care of somebody nice” than doing whatever it is she’s doing down in the dumps.  So why isn’t this song on any of Dylan’s post-1983 compilations while the negligible “Time Passes Slowly” (Biograph) and “Under the Red Sky” (twice--Greatest Hits Volume Three, Dylan), for instance, are?  It’s not as if the singer said that the titular sweetheart should stay barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen.

5. “Sign on the Window” (1970).  Perhaps the least Dylan-sounding recording that Dylan ever made.  The David Ackles-like chord progressions, the lead acoustic piano, the cornfield flutes, the mid-song weather report in which the hard rain that the singer fears is sleet and sleet only, the desire to make like a Mormon and family up in Utah, the sheer gorgeousness of the thing generating an emotional nimbus so hopefully optimistic that the undertone of too-good-ever-to-be-true is as heartbreaking as the voice with which it’s sung--in short, what Graham Nash was aiming for in “Our House” and almost hitting.

Bob Dylan's Top-Five Songs Beginning with "R"

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Bob Dylan's Top-Five Songs Beginning with "R"

1. “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” (1966).  “[S]ome people,” observed Rolling Stone’s Mikael Gilmore to Dylan in 2012, “still see ‘Rainy Day Women’ as coded about getting high.”  “It doesn’t surprise me that some people would see it that way,” replied Dylan. “But these are people that aren’t familiar with the Book of Acts.”  Heck, these are even people that aren’t familiar with what “stoned” meant to non Bible readers circa 1966.  According to Dave Marsh in The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, Ray Charles’ 1966 recording of the Ashford-and-Simpson composed “Let’s Go Get Stoned” was about the “pleasures of getting wasted”--but not via marijuana or any other then-illegal drug.  It was, rather, a musical “plea to go out for a drink.”  So “stoned,” like “tight” a decade or so earlier (but not in the “Tight Connection to My Heart” mid-’80s), probably just meant “drunk,” which is certainly how everyone in the studio sounded when Nashville tapes captured this raucous waltz.  But back to the Acts of the Apostles (which, lest anyone forget, was originally Part Two of the Gospel According to St. Luke).  In Chapter Seven, verses fifty-four to sixty, Stephen becomes the first Christian martyr.  “And they stoned Stephen,” writes Luke, “calling upon God, and saying, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’  And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, ‘Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.’  And when he had said this, he fell asleep.”  Dylan, by his own admission (cf. Don’t Look Back), wasn’t much of a Bible reader himself in those days, so it’s unlikely that Stephen was on his mind when he wrote this song.  But he did know a thing or two about being “stoned,” having weathered by that point the ire of folk-music Pharisees for his having gone electric.  Thirteen years later, he’d suffer a similar backlash for recording and performing nothing but songs in praise of the God-Man whom Stephen was stoned for preaching about--a fact that, along with his well-documented fondness for alcohol, no doubt explains why this song continues to pop up in Dylan’s set lists.  As for its spirit’s (if not its letter’s) having inspired the Meters’ “They All Ask’d for You” (in which men give names to all the animals in New Orleans’ Audubon Zoo), well, Cyril Neville, that song’s lead singer, did show up as a percussionist on Oh Mercy, didn’t he?  

2. “Ring Them Bells” (1989).  Speaking of Oh Mercy, this simple piano-and-eerie-organ hymn distills that album’s ghost-whispering-into-the-night gestalt at least as potently as “What Good Am I” (the acknowledged tour-de-force of his current Duke Robillard tour).  Addressed to “ye heathen” (like Infidels?) and alluding to the “bride” (the term for the Church in Dylan’s favorite biblical book, Revelation) for the first time since “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” eight years earlier, the song urges quasimodos everywhere to get over the hump and sound the alarm.  “Sacred cow[s],” widows, orphans, lilies arrayed finer than Solomon, “sweet Martha” (who, unlike her sister Mary, “was worried and upset about many things” [Luke 10]), sheep in need of a Shepherd, the “chosen few,” a God who is one--biblical archetypes abound.  But just who is St. Catherine?  It depends.  There are at least six by that name in the Catholic Church alone.  My guess is St. Catherine of Alexandria, about whom the Catholic Encyclopedia says, “far from forsaking her Faith, effected so many conversions, [and] was condemned to die on the wheel, but, at her touch, this instrument of torture was miraculously destroyed.”  I mean, if this wheel was destroyed because it was on fire....

3. “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” (2006).  The great rock-and-roll guitarist Bill Kirchen, who was actually in the audience at the Newport Festival when Dylan plugged in with Mike Bloomfield (and who went to high school in Michigan with Iggy Pop, but that’s another story), once told me that, while he revered Dylan’s first ten albums, he was no fan of this Modern Times song as it merely and lazily recycled the Muddy Waters’ song of the same name.  Well, recycle Muddy Waters Dylan unquestionably does but not without tossing in some piquant additives of his own: “Ain’t nothing so depressing as trying to satisfy this woman of mine” (ring them bells, ye divorced); “[t]his woman so crazy, I ain’t gonna touch another one for years” (yeah, good luck with that, ye heterosexual males); “[s]ome young lazy slut has charmed away my brains” (that’s more like it)--each sung in an experience-ravaged voice that does not by any means absolve the singer from having been one of the two that it took to tango.  And beneath it all rumbles a fast train coming.

4. “Rita May” (1975).  It was the B-side of a live Hard Rain single although it was recorded a year before during the Desire sessions.  It was included on the Masterpieces collection although a masterpiece is one of the many things that it’s not.  It may have been addressed to the author of Rubyfruit Jungle, a lesbian roman à clef that I would like to think Dylan, if he read it at all, preferred to whatever he read by Erica Jong.  It was covered by Jerry Lee Lewis (because it’s rockabilly-ish and because Lewis is randy).  In 2025, when Dylan is eighty-four, it will be included on Sony’s Desire 50th anniversary box.  You read it here first.

5. “Romance in Durango.”  “Me and Magdalena on the run”--nah, Dylan didn’t identify with Christ much, did he?  “No Ilores, mi querida, / Dios nos vigila”--nah, Spanish isn’t the loving tongue, is it?  “Then the padre will recite the prayers of old / in the little church this side of town”--how much you wanna bet that that church is ringing them bells?  “Soon the face of God will appear”--Dylan had no idea how soon (cf. Slow Train Coming, 1979).  The live Rolling Thunder Review versions, in which Dylan cracks the whip on all the tired horses dragging the rendition on Desire, gallop apace.  And If ZZ Top hadn’t already had folks “dancing the Fandango” before Dylan and Jacques Levy crafted these weird words, this song could even be more “Dylan is a prophet” material.