Saturday, January 31, 2015

Clothes Line Saga

Neighbor tells family
The vice president’s gone mad.

They keep doing chores.

"Clothes Line Saga" might be the craziest of the Basement Tapes songs, and it is certainly the most emblematic of that summer of '67. Dylan tells the story of a family doing chores on a cold day in late January. There's some light, slightly abusive banter between family members, the kind of low-level hum of annoyance that families get when winter cabin fever sets in.

Day 1:
1. They bring clothes in.
2. Mama picks up a book, papa asks what it is, mama says "What do you care?"
3. The clothes must be wet still, so they hang them back on the line.

Day 2:
1. Everyone's chief concern upon waking is seeing if the clothes have dried.
2. Dogs bark. Neighbor passes.
3. Neighbor is grinning. He tells mama that the vice president went mad downtown the night before.
4. Mama says, well, that's just the way it goes. The neighbor says we'll have to forget.
5. Mama asks Bob if the clothes are wet.
6. Bob touches his shirt, but the neighbor interrupts his mission. The neighbor wants to know if some of the clothes are Bob's and if he helps out with the chores. Bob tells him "some of them, not all of them" and "sometime, not all the time."
7. Papa tells Bob that mama wants him to come in and bring the clothes.
8. Bob meets mama inside and they shut all the doors.

I can't say whether there's supposed to be some deeper meaning here. The laconic pace and the deadpan, straightforward delivery of the words indicate to me that the song is about nothing more than it claims to be, though various people have suggested anti-war statements regarding Vietnam and the White House, as well as some kind of strange answer to the Ode to Billy Joe. I like it more as an absurd, Luis Bunuel-style short film that's about clothes, neighbors and a family. It fits right in with the strange picture of Ruritania that so much of the rest of the Basement Tapes delivers in that old-timey, weird spooky way that it does.


And here's a delightful cover by a guy Phil J. Gray in his room, wearing a sombrero.






Clean-Cut Kid

Vietnam victim
Leaves the service. Once sweet,
He's now a killer.

This up-tempo song from the 1985 album "Empire Burlesque" is one of Bob Dylan's attempts at social commentary on the scars of war that veterans suffer and how some Vietnam veterans in particular couldn't cope with life after the fighting in the 1970s and 1980s. From being raised in the Eisenhower-era security blanket of American supremacy and, in its way, post-war innocence, then to the jungle, then back into society without much more than a thank you very much, and so on and so on, "Clean-Cut Kid" is part of the narrative of films and art at the time that blamed the U.S. government and society for failing to support its troops. I'm thinking of movies like "The Deer Hunter," "Coming Home," "Cutter's Way" and later, "Born on the Fourth of July." The trouble with this song is that the lyrics are goofy, and the production of the song hovers in a void of big 80's rock, doot-doot-style vocal group backup singing and outrage that just doesn't sound all that outraged. For example:

He was on the baseball team, he was in the marching band

When he was ten years old he had a watermelon stand

He went to church on Sunday, he was a Boy Scout

For his friends he would turn his pockets inside out

They said, “Listen boy, you’re just a pup”

They sent him to a napalm health spa to shape up

They gave him dope to smoke, drinks and pills

A jeep to drive, blood to spill

They said “Congratulations, you got what it takes”

They sent him back into the rat race without any brakes

That's reasonable to a point, but then comes the surreal left turn into what I suspect was a search for rhymes:


He drank Coca-Cola, he was eating Wonder Bread
Ate Burger Kings, he was well fed

He went to Hollywood to see Peter O’Toole
He stole a Rolls-Royce and drove it in a swimming pool

He could’ve sold insurance, owned a restaurant or bar
Could’ve been an accountant or a tennis star

He was wearing boxing gloves, took a dive one day

Off the Golden Gate Bridge into China Bay

Burger Kings? Peter O'Toole? Rolls-Royce in a swimming pool? Tennis star? Boxing gloves? The trouble with tragedy is that it can turn into comedy.

Here's an outtake of the song from the "Infidels" sessions in 1983 which I like much better than the album version on "Empire Burlesque."




The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)

Christmas is coming.
Kids aged 1 to 92:
It's coming for you.

This is the "chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose" song, and it was written by Bob Wells and Mel Torme in 1944. I thought that the chestnuts and Jack Frost (Dylan's pseudonym as a producer, by the way) were too obvious for haiku purposes, so I seized on the lyric:

"And so, I'm offering this simple phrase To kids from one to ninety-two Although it's been said many times, many ways Merry Christmas to you."

Dylan recorded it for the 2009 album "Christmas in the Heart."



Christmas Island

Tropical Christmas.
Santa drops in by canoe.
Let's go there sometime.

This is another old standard that Bob Dylan recorded for the "Christmas in the Heart" album in 2009. It's ridiculous, though Bob's in good company with other performers of the song, notably the Andrews Sisters and Bing Crosby.

How'd ja like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island? How'd ja like to spend the Holiday away across the sea? How'd ja like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island? How'd ja like to hang your stockin' on a great big coconut tree? How'd ja like to stay up late, like the islanders do Wait for Santa to sail in with your presents in a canoe If you ever spend Christmas on Christmas Island You will never stray, for ev'ry day Your Christmas dreams come true How'd ja like to stay up late, like the islanders do Wait for Santa to sail in with your presents in a canoe If you ever spend Christmas on Christmas Island You will never stray, for ev'ry day Your Christmas dreams come true




The Christmas Blues

Christmas time sucks if
You have no friends or lover
To buy presents for.

This bluesy Christmas carol was written by Sammy Cahn and David Holt. Jo Stafford released a version in 1953, as did Dean Martin. Dylan's version appeared on "Christmas in the Heart." Here are the lyrics:

The jingle bells are jingling The streets are white with snow The happy crowds are mingling But there's no one that I know I'm sure that you'll forgive me If I don't enthuse I guess I've got the Christmas blues I've done my window shopping There's not a store I've missed But what's the use of stopping When there's no one on your list You'll know the way I'm feeling When you love and you lose I guess I've got the Christmas blues When somebody wants you Somebody needs you Christmas is a joy of joy But friends when you're lonely You'll find that it's only A thing for little girls and little boys May all your days be merry Your seasons full of cheer But 'til it's January I'll just go and disappear Oh Santa may have brought you some stars for your shoes But Santa only brought me the blues Those brightly packaged tinsel covered Christmas blues Oh Santa may have brought you some stars for your shoes But Santa only brought me the blues Those brightly packaged tinsel covered Christmas blues




Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Chimes of Freedom

The chimes of freedom
Flash for the world's losers
And make lots of noise.

"Chimes of Freedom" was a big hit in short form for the Byrds, and that's the version that most people know. Bob Dylan's recording, for 1964's "Another Side of Bob Dylan," is a denser affair, and one of the first to slide into the realm of the surreal where was to pay rent for the next two or three years. It's a haunting song, and the repetition of the slow, spare melody skirts the border between hypnotic and annoying, but the end product is undeniably a strong, intelligent work. Now, how do the chimes flash and toll? I suspect they reflect like while they're banging around.

And for whom are they flashing and clanging and banging?

1. Warriors whose strength is not to fight.
2. Refugees on unarmed road of flight.
3. Underdog soldier at night. 4. Rebel.
5. Rake.
6. Luckless.
7. Abandoned.
8. Forsaked.
9. Outcast.
10. Burnt at stake.
11. Gentle.
12. Kind.
13. Guardians.
14. Protectors of mind.
15. Unpawned, derivative painter.
16. Tongues with no place for their thoughts.
17. Deaf.
18. Blind.
19. Mute.
20. Mistreated.
21. Single mother.
22. Mistitled prostitute.
23. Misdemeanor outlaw.
24. Chased.
25. Cheated.
26. Searching.
27. Unharmful, gentle prisoners.
28. Aching with terminal wounds.
29. Countless confused.
30. Countless misused.
31. Countless accused.
32. Countless strung outs.
33. Worse.
34. Hung-up people.

Here is a version by Bob and Joan Baez at Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1992.



Changing of the Guards

Bob makes some changes
Sixteen years into his job.
He might have found God.

One of the most vague and sometimes annoying songs in Bob Dylan's catalogue, "Changing of the Guards" is an anthem full of willful obscurity, best viewed from a distance. Musically it sounds fine, but my experience always has been that I listen to the words more as sounds and focus on the music, or else I start asking myself too many questions about "what it all means."

I couldn't avoid that question any longer, however, so I concluded that in 1978, 16 years after his commercial debut, he was announcing a number of changes in his moral, spiritual and musical path. Why 16? Because the song begins with the words, "Sixteen years, sixteen banners united over the field where the good shepherd grieves."

Then there's divorce and opposition and departure: "Desperate men, desperate women divided, Spreading their wings 'neath the falling leaves."

Other "clues:"

Entrance upon the professional stage: "Fortune calls, I stepped from the shadows to the marketplace."

And his historical problem with hangers-on and managers: "Merchants and thieves, hungry for power, my last deal gone down."

What to make of the captain sending loving thoughts to a woman beyond communication, with an "ebony face," and who eventually has her head shaved and is torn between Jupiter and Apollo? No idea. For what it's worth, he follows her past a fountain, but it sounds like he loses her.

Then there's the heart-shaped tattoo with stitches still mending, dog soldiers reflected in a palace of mirrors, lovemaking with a blonde, long-haired guy and gal amid mountain laurel, another rejection of the music business: "Gentlemen, he said, I don't need your organization, I've shined your shoes, I've moved your mountains and marked your cards."

Then there's the challenge that he issues to all the grubbers, mooches and other people in his life: "But Eden is burning, either brace yourself for elimination, or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards."

And finally, peace comes, but apparently it's represented by false idols -- perhaps an early reference to the more explicitly stated idea on the "Infidels" album that "sometimes Satan come as a man of peace." And then there's a thoroughly obscure reference to death surrendering, and the death of death retreating between two tarot cards. Right. Enjoy yourself...

("Changing of the Guard" was the first song on the "Street Legal" album of 1978, a period after Bob's divorce when you get the impression that he was entering a period of sour milk moods and general grumpiness, not long before he'd find Jesus and enter a period of general religious grumpiness.)

I can't get the Dylan version to load, so here's Frank Black and the Catholics doing their own raucous take.




Cat's in the Well

While you slept, the wolf
Trapped the cat inside the well.
Hope God has mercy.

"Under the Red Sky" features some sub-par songs, but "Cat's in the Well," which closes the album, is one of the ones that I like. It doesn't have any story to speak of, merely a series of analogies that fit a rhyme scheme. I say analogies because each verse's subject completes an action, all of which seem to boil down to the final line, "Good night, my love, may the Lord have mercy on us all." It's a standard rock n' roll song, and it hops along merrily, though I find that the last line has a note of ironic apocalyptic warning. Impressions may vary.

1. Cat's in the well, wolf looks down. He has a bushy tail dragging on the ground.
2. Cat's still in the well. Lady is asleep. She can't hear anything.
3. Cat's still in the well, upset. World is being slaughtered, it's a disgrace.
4. Cat remains in the well, horse goes bumpety-bump. Back alley Sally does the American Jump.
5. Cat persists in the well, balding papa is reading the news while his daughters need shoes.
6. Cat languishes in the well, barn is full of bull, table is full.
7. Cat's in the well, as ever, servant's at the door, drinks are ready, dogs are going to war.
8. The damned cat is still in the well, it's autumn, God have mercy.

I can't load up the studio version, but here's a raggedy live version from a while back.



Catfish

Catfish played baseball
And struck everybody out.
He whooped the Yankees.

I don't like songs about baseball. Well, I don't like most songs about baseball. There are exceptions, but songs about sports generally leave me cold. "Catfish," a Jacques Levy-Bob Dylan collaboration that was recorded for the 1976 album "Desire," but ultimately left off, is no exception. The song is basic. Catfish Hunter is a great baseball player, nobody can play like he can, and so on. That's all very nice. The Dylan touches that make it a little more sly deal with Billy Martin grinning, Catfish's pinstripe suit and cigar and alligator boots, and that kind of thing. Best of all is the line about striking out Reggie Jackson on the Yankees:

Reggie Jackson at the plate Seein’ nothin’ but the curve Swing too early or too late Got to eat what Catfish serve

That's pretty good writing.

The song, meanwhile, appeared on the first installment of the Bootleg Series in 1991. And here is Joe Cocker's version from the "Stingray" album.




Caribbean Wind

Tropical leftist
Embarks on doomed romance with
Bob, preaching gospel.

This 1981 song didn't make the final cut of "Shot of Love," and was released four years later on the "Biograph" anthology. "Caribbean Wind" is another one of those Dylan songs that is heavy on the imagery and symbolism, sometimes at the cost of clarity and plot. Where do I get that the woman was a leftist? I don't know. I concluded that it was unlikely that she and her brothers would be getting shot at in the jungle by gunmen on an embassy roof in the late 1970's if they weren't leftists, particularly if the backstory takes place in Brazil, as the lyrics suggest. In brief:

1. She's the rose of Sharon from paradise lost, from a seven-hilled city near a cross (Rio de Janeiro?). He's playing a concert and preaching about Jesus in Miami in a theater of "divine comedy." She tells him her brothers were killed in a jungle by a guy dancing on the roof of an embassy.
2. Did she use him? It's possible.
3. Chorus: Caribbean winds blow from Nassau to Mexico, fanning flames in the furnace of desire. Ships of liberty on iron waves are bold and free, but apparently are bringing everything that's close to Bob close to the fire.
4. She says a mutual friend has their best interest in mind, but it seems that however well connected he is, she has him in a trap because he's in her debt for some reason.
5. They meet in a church on a hot day. She tells him he can't do something about whatever he's thinking.
6. Bob's in Atlantic City. It's cold out. He hears someone calling him "daddy," but there's no one there. The news reports are full of stories about famines and earthquakes.
7. He contemplates whether he should have married her.

Choose your own adventure!



Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?

You're with a loser.
Are you one too? Why don't you
Come date me instead.

If Dylan's worst qualities, lyrically speaking, in the late 1970s and early 1980s were his sour moralizing and his toxic blend of self pity and anger toward women, his worst quality at the height of his fame in 1965 and 1966 was an arrogance born from intelligence and the irritation of others that seemed to shoot in all directions.

"Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window" is the tale of Romeo seducing Juliet from the window, but by mocking her even as he makes clear that he has lustful thoughts on his mind. Toward the woman he's singing to, you hear petulant demands and scorn.

Can you please crawl out your window? Use your arms and legs it won’t ruin you How can you say he will haunt you? You can go back to him any time you want to.

The man she's dating, meanwhile, takes up each of the song's venomous verses. Example:

He looks so truthful, is this how he feels Trying to peel the moon and expose it With his businesslike anger and his bloodhounds that kneel If he needs a third eye he just grows it He just needs you to talk or to hand him his chalk Or pick it up after he throws it

Dylan can't even talk to him. He just harangues her about him. It's great to be young, smart, wanted and admired, but you get the impression that for a year or two, the singer couldn't stand to be around anyone because they're all a bunch of assholes. But there's a saying about the company that you keep...

I don't enjoy speaking this way about people I don't know, but the temptation through a song like this becomes too strong. It seems clear that the eventual motorcycle accident and decision to hop off the grid and into upstate New York was just what the man needed. I'm sure that he's even crustier today, but wisdom, if it comes, has a tendency to blunt arrogance, even if it can't cure misanthropy. Separately, I read on Wikipedia that when Phil Ochs and Dylan were riding in a limousine together, Dylan played the song to him. When Ochs was less than impressed, Dylan reportedly kicked him out of the limousine, shouting, "You're not a folk singer, you're a journalist!" So. There you go.

The song was released as a single in 1965 and is available on the "Biograph" anthology from 1985. I can't get a Dylan version to load up so I'm sharing Roger Daltrey's.





Can't Wait

I have looked for you
For years. I want you so bad.
Better find you soon.

"I’m doomed to love you, I’ve been rolling through stormy weather. I’m thinking of you and all the places we could roam together."
More gut-bucket swamp-rock from the 1997 album "Time Out of Mind," produced by Daniel Lanois with that humid sound of his. Dylan in "Can't Wait" sings about how he can't wait for a former lover to change her mind. He wants her back, he can't live without her, he can't understand why this is and he can't wait because without her, he'll die. That all being said, he doesn't know what he would do if he saw her. He probably wouldn't be able to control himself. He concludes that he's the one as he goes "strolling through the lonely graveyard of my mind." When they parted, he left his life with her many years before. It's definitely not a situation you want to be in unless you make your living writing songs like this.

Here is a stunning performance of the song from a performance in Portsmouth, England, 2000.




Can't Help Falling in Love

It might be foolish,
But I love you like the sea
Loves the big river.

This song, set to the tune of "Plaisir d'Amour," was a big hit for Elvis Presley in 1961. Dylan's version was recorded during sessions for the "New Morning" album in 1970, and released on the "Dylan" album in 1973, without his input or approval. It's shambolic like most of the rest of the songs on that album, but I have affection for it in the way that I would have for a silly-looking dog. The haiku lines come from the verse of the song that says, "Like a river flows surely to the sea, Darling so it goes some things are meant to be." I ignored the famous line from the Bible about wise men saying that fools rush in (where angels fear to tread), figuring that it's overdone. I like the river/sea line, and thought it wouldn't hurt to suggest that the sea "loves" the fresh water the way the singer loves his honey.



Canadee-i-o

Girl at sea, disguised.
Captain saves her from sailors,
Boyfriend much chagrined.

This is one of my favorite Bob Dylan performances. "Canadee-i-o" is his 1992 rendition of the old story of a boy who sails off to sea to Canada, and dresses his girl up as a boy sailor because they can't stand to be apart. When they're in the middle of the ocean, she is unmasked. The other sailors try to throw her overboard, but the captain intervenes and saves her life. Not only that, he marries the girl and makes her not only a happy bride, but a wealthy one once they make land. What of the boy sailor? The suggestion in Dylan's version of the song is that the boy is ready to accept her death sentence, or perhaps, as some versions of the song go, he tries to participate in her doom. Dylan's version doesn't mention his fate. There is an ambiguous line, at least to me, that suggests that the boy is no good -- that after he agrees that she should join him on the ship, they then bargains with the sailor boy all for a piece of gold, and only then does he kit her out as a mate.

Here are the lyrics of Dylan's version of the song. There are other versions out there, known as "The Wearing of the Blue" and "Caledonia." Again, this is one of my favorite Dylan moments. His voice, cracked and withered, strains against its limits, soaring with emotion even as he stands back and lets the characters do their thing.

I can't paste the Dylan video in, so try this one instead. It's by Nic Jones, who is one of the greatest musicians ever to tackle these songs.






Call Letter Blues

Woman leaves, man stays.
Kids and friends ask, where's she gone?
She's with her new man.

This is a separate set of lyrics for the song that eventually became "Meet Me in the Morning" on the 1975 album "Blood on the Tracks." "Call Letter Blues," recorded during the sessions for that album, is a much less ambiguous song. The singer's wife has left him, and he doesn't know what to tell friends who ask where she is, and the problem gets worse when the kids ask too. He tells them "Mother took a trip," and "I walk on pins and needles. I hope my tongue don't slip." Meanwhile, he keeps hoping he'll spot her in the crowd, but the last lines of the song make him realize that he could wait a lifetime for that moment, and it probably won't happen: "But the sun goes around the heavens, And another day just drives on through." The song appeared commercially in the first installment of the Bootleg Series.






Monday, January 26, 2015

Bye and Bye

Old man still can dance.
With age comes wisdom. He knows
You're his only love.

I recently saw an interview with Joni Mitchell on CBC in which (now-disgraced) journalist and musician Jian Ghomeshi asked her for some thoughts on Bob Dylan. In the interview, Mitchell said that Dylan told her that he hasn't written songs for 20 years, that in fact he's putting together pieces of other songs to make new ones. "Bye and Bye" off the "Love and Theft" album from 2001 is that kind of song. I referred to them earlier as blues and rockabilly versions of Marcel Duchamp readymades. The narratives wander all over the place, sometimes declining to connect from one verse to the next, while only the mood is constant. In "Bye and Bye," the band shuffles through a 1940's-style tune as Bob grabs whatever from the songbag fits his mind, and doesn't forget a few jokes here and there like, "I'm sittin' on my watch so I can be on time."

1. He's got his eye on you. Sitting on his watch, etc., singing and sighing like a lover.
2. Painting the town with his girl.
3. He's walking on briars and not acquainted with his own desires.
4. He's rolling slow and convincing himself he has a dream left.
5. The future his past, you're the first love and the last.
6. Papa's mad, momma's sad, Bob's going to baptize you in fire to prevent you from sinning, he's going to establish his rule through civil war and show you how loyal a man can be.

It adds up to not very much, but I still love the song.




Buckets of Rain

Everything she does
He adores, but she brings him
Buckets of sadness.

This sweet, short heartbreaker of a song closes the miserable and gloomy masterpiece of an album "Blood on the Tracks" from 1975. Taken with a big dose of real life, it's supposed to chronicle in a reasonably abstract form the breakdown of Bob Dylan's marriage to his wife Sara. Whether that's the inspiration behind the album is the listener's choice as far as I'm concerned. Dylan has disavowed that notion, but he's an unreliable narrator at the best of times considering that it's his private life and he's not crazy about discussing it. One of his sons has said that indeed this is a series of references to the private lives of his parents. I prefer to leach out the details and focus on the words, which are sad, angry, confused and bitter much of the time. In "Buckets of Rain," you get the idea that everything about the woman he's singing to makes him happy, and he even gets into how he likes the cool way she looks at him, likes her smile and her fingertips and lips, etc., but as he says baldly, "Everything about you is bringing me misery." Then there's the genius conclusion of the song:

Life is sad, life is a bust
All you can do is do what you must
You do what you must do and you do it well.
I do it for you, honey baby can't you tell?