As often as possible, I avoid getting into discussions about Bob Dylan and his body of work. There are a few people who have taken the time to listen and can hold an intelligent conversation but usually the subject either results in one more bad impersonation that is not even vaguely funny or in the implication that the man cannot carry a tune. A very frustrating situation.
Dylan was the closing act at Woodstock 1995. Since he avoided the first Woodstock on purpose, since it had been calculated to draw him out of hiding, give him an ‘A’ for irony on that one. Not having cash to attend and not being the type to go to such overblown extravaganzas, news came to me of a co-worker who had gone. He was a nice enough guy but it was his misfortune to be born with a cleft palate. Resultingly, his voice was a high-pitch and his words often broke at syllables.
At the printer during the week after the show, I asked him how it was and about Dylan, in particular. A recording of Jokerman from the festival had been circulating and sounded fine…a solid version of a favorite tune.
“So what about Bob Dylan,” I queried, while tugging at a sheet of paper that had mis-fed, “How was he, man?”
“Awww…Bah Dealwan…,” he frowned, showing me thumbs down, “He sth-ucked!”
“ He sucked? Come on, man,” I countered, “I heard him on the radio! What was wrong with him?” We had drank enough together that contention was allowed.
He looked at me, shaking his head, and sputtered, “Whe, nI couldunn unnastand na wo-irds!!” His voice rose, like he was dealing with an idiot.
There seemed to be no reply to that logic, framed in that voice, yet it is just a common aggravation that people who enjoy the whole Dylan catalogue endure. Everybody jokes about the voice. Some people will give him credit for being a great lyricist, while qualifying the statement with an off-comment regarding the voice.
What seems to be most widely ignored is his magical proficiency as a guitar player and his place in culture as a Romantic figure. Not being a musician and, so, not qualified to write about the technical process of the guitar, I look at who BD surrounds himself with and is caught hanging out with. Keith Richards, Johnny Cash, Ron Wood, the late Jerry Garcia, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, Eric Clapton – guitar heroes, all.
Romance and references to love, lost love, impossible love and wrong love all waft through the lyrics throughout his songs from 1962 to his most recent release Together Through Life. So much love, so many relationships, so many hopes dissolved; they present a daunting task when trying to string them all on one common thread of theme. As we have just seen the release of the Widmark Demos on Columbia Records, let us concentrate on his earlier songs, the blood of which he laid on the tracks from 1962-1964.
First, it is important to understand the romantic.
Merriam-Webster notes the romantic to be imaginary and visionary, having no basis in fact and impractical in conception or plan, marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of what is heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious or idealized and by the expressions of love or affection. The definition says more but that much says what is needed.
An apt description of the 20-ish Robert Zimmerman, as he made his way through the snow banks and into Manhattan. He would seem to have come out of nowhere, obviously, his songs were visionary and were impractical since he did not play the game and write what the boss on Tin Pan Alley expected. At that time in America, originality evoked poison. Most striking, the five words – heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious, idealized. What better description of the man, then and now? Remote and mysterious, perhaps a result his documented of Asperger’s Syndrome, or to protect the image and person behind it; idealized is certainly his status among fans and world leaders alike; heroic for speaking his mind in the face of goliath opposition, and any question about being adventurous not only points to his current tour schedule but for taking chances from the beginning – after all, he was the Lucky Wilbury.
A Jokerman ‘standing on the waters casting his bread’ as he entered NYC in the frozen winter, he literally stood on the frozen waters of oceans of snow and trudged through the icy gutters of the city. In school, he had mimicked the moves and speech of James Dean and Marlon Brandon, like many impressionable, sensitive teens. Now, like them, he was in Times Square hustling to stay alive, selling himself to men and women like Joe Buck wanted to do in Midnight Cowboy. Things went bad somewhere in this scenario, as can be expected, and he left the city hurriedly for reasons he has never explained. He returned because once he felt the force end energy of the community in Greenwich Village, stoked by emergence of ‘youth culture’, he knew he had to be there, drawn like a moth to flame.
We know he cast his bread and it came back to him and the city seems to be the place for such alchemy, as about ten years later, a waifish Patricia Lee Smith bought a ticket with found money and stepped off the bus to make her home on a favorite set of stone steps until Fortune found her there.
Falling in with the Beats and folkies of the East Village, he began stealing everything, songs, words, styles, licks, phrases, beats…from everyone he knew. His Twin Cities reputation of album thief, spawned by his penchant for ‘borrowing’ albums for extended periods of time, often without permission from the owner, had readied him for a higher sort of larceny. Recently, critics have derided him for appropriating ideas and passages from popular literature. Some things just don’t change.
Melodies lifted from tradional English and Celtic ballads framed the original thoughts and unlikely verbal synapses of the young man with the old voice. Maybe, in his relentless devouring of literature, he copped poet Arthur Rimbaud’s credo of the poet being a ‘thief of fire.’ Rimbaud references do not begin to appear in his songs until much later, on Blood On The Tracks. ‘Love and theft’ withstanding, the body of work created from 1962-64 mark the zenith of his creativity, as the artist himself admits.
Dylan never defines his songs and never did. Known as a purveyor of protest, he claims to never have written a protest song but rather a number of ‘finger pointing songs.’ Never claiming to know what “the answer” was, at least he pointed to the wind so we knew where it was blowing. It is hard to imagine writing a song like Blowin’ In The Wind or Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land, songs which speak for a nation.
The Witmark Demos, forty-seven songs, can be fit roughly into general categories, like songs of universal appeal and triumph of spirit, such as Blowin’ In The Wind, Walkin’ Down The Line, When The Ship Comes In, Let Me Die In My Footsteps, Paths Of Victory and The Times They Are A-Changin’; songs with romantic appeal, such as Quit Your Lowdown Ways, Baby I’m In The Mood For You, All Over You, I’ll Keep It With Mine, Mama You’ve Been On My Mind, Girl From The North Country and Boots of Spanish Leather, the novelty songs and finger pointers, such as Hard Times In New York Town, Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Oxford Town, Masters of War and songs which defy definition but are deep with feeling, such as Mr. Tambourine Man, Guess I’m Doing Fine and Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.
During the years the demos were records, the United States was primed for excitement and adventurous romanticism. The air was static with the electricity of John F. Kennedy’s Camelot. Anything was possible, especially love. Around the world, the contagion of confidence spread by the media grew around the Arthurian magic of the White House. The death of JFK affected Dylan deeply. While the injustices visited upon Hollis Brown and Hattie Carroll were pointed out clearly, his first written reflections on the death resulted in a different style of phrasing, a more ‘rationally disorganized’ way, as resulted, in Chimes of Freedom (not on the demos). We also see this Rimbaudian crafting in Mr. Tambourine Man. This was the song that would change the charts forever, once the Byrds got a hold of it.
Regardless of what manner of song you call them, all are rife with classic romantic emotion and vision.
Stepping away from the demos, another Dylan irony lies in the fact that his two most popular love songs were recorded for other people. Just Like A Woman, which has turned into an annoying sing-a-long on the chorus at concerts in recent years, carries the legend of having been offered to Otis Redding, who decided not to record it because he thought it to be ‘too wordy.’
Lay Lady Lay charted along with three other Dylan songs which made it to Billboard’s top ten. It entered at song number seven, although it went to number five on UK charts. Also coming in at number seven a few years earlier was Positively Fourth Street; Like A Rolling Stone and Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 both peaked at number two.Just Like A Woman came in at number 33, despite the strength of the song. To put it in context, Blowin’ In The Wind did not even chart in his version.
Lay Lady Lay proved to be fortuitous not only for Dylan. He had been asked to write a song for Midnight Cowboy and missed the deadline. This led to Harry Nilson recording a cover of folk sing Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talking At Me, which made it to number six in 1969.
It is interesting that folk chanteuse Maria Muldaur, who sang and played with Dylan in those early years in the Village (and is featured recounting their association during his most formative period in Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home) released a collection of his love songs in 2006 and skipped that nostalgic time altogether. Instead, she chose to interpret more modern love classics, like Heart Of Mine, Make You Feel My Love (also a hit for Billy Joel and Garth Brooks ?!?!), Moonlight, Buckets of Rain, You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, To Be Alone With You and a number of other post-village-years, latter-day standards.
Patti Smith, in December 2010’s Rolling Stone magazine, listed her top ten love songs by Dylan. Her picks? Among them reside One Too Many Mornings, Boots Of Spanish Leather, Love Minus Zero/No Limit, Wedding Song, Dark Eyes, She Belongs To Me, Visions of Johanna and Dirge. The majority of these predate her pick of 1966’s Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands and the inclusion of songs like Isis, Not Dark Yet and Like A Rolling Stone on her list seem to skew the meaning of ‘love song,’ to a degree.
Then, again, where does the romance come from in Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right? This is not your usual hearts and flowers. The romance lies not in warm arms or dark eyes but in the quixotic notion of “a-thinkin’ and a-wond’rin’ all the way down the road.” Going your own way, walking into the world, taking what you find on the journey, that is real romance.