Monday, February 9, 2015

Death Is Not the End

Things might suck now, but
Don't worry; they'll suck much more
After you are dead.

I must admit that I stole the idea for this haiku from Nick Cave. He and the Bad Seeds covered the song on their 1996 album "Murder Ballads," a smorgasbord of violence, death and gore like no other pop album. Cave in an interview at the time suggested that the song, which sounds like a reassurance of deliverance after life in a painful world, could be read to suggest that the vale of tears that is life is surely eternal because, as Dylan tells us in each verse after describing something awful, "Death is not the end." I had to laugh when I heard that, and the more I thought about it, I'm not sure that Dylan didn't mean it that way when he released it on the 1988 album "Down in the Groove." (His backup singers were Full Force, all you old school rappers)

Here are the things for which you should be reassured, or horrified, to discover that death is not the end:
1. Sadness, loneliness, no friends, everything sacred broken and can't be mended.
2. Crossroads you can't comprehend, dreams vanished, unknown surprises around the bend.
3. Storm clouds, heavy rains, no one to comfort you, no one to lend a hand.
4. Cities on fire with the burning flesh of men, a lack of law-abiding citizens

In all seriousness, I think that Dylan meant this in an optimistic way, that death is deliverance, considering the middle-8 in the song:

Oh the tree of life is growing
Where the spirit never dies,
And the bright light of salvation shines
In dark and empty skies.

Keep all this in mind when you're contemplating the inevitable, and remember kids, don't drop acid and listen to this song.

Here is Nick Cave's version, complete with a host of guest singers from his band and other bands (including Shane MacGowan and Kylie Minogue).

Dear Landlord

It's a simple ask:
Don't raise my apartment rent.
I have commitments.

"Dear Landlord" comes from side two of the 1967 mystery album "John Wesley Harding." Like nearly every other song on the album, it's loaded with symbols and metaphors, and nothing is quite like it seems. That eeriness is raised to a higher degree by the simplicity of the recordings: mostly acoustic guitar, soft bass and drums and some piano. This sounds like a song that came out of another century that never existed. And here are some of Bob's complaints to his landlord:

1. Don't put a price on his soul. Burden heavy, dreams beyond control. He'll pay when the steamboat whistle blows, and he hopes you take the pay.
2. You're not the only one who has suffered. Sometimes we work too hard and spend time on things that aren't meaningful.
3. Please don't dismiss his case. He's not moving. He won't underestimate you if you don't underestimate him.

Here's Joe Cocker's version.

Dead Man, Dead Man

Dead man (false prophet?)
Tempts a righteous Christian man
Who's not having it.

"Dead Man, Dead Man" is one of the later hectoring songs from Bob Dylan as Christian missionary. In this track from 1981's "Shot of Love," he spends a few minutes pouring invective on someone whom he feels is plying him with false information and wants to take him to hell. You can see here:

1. Words from a reprobate mind, dying on the vine, can't separate the good from the bad. He can't stand it. Dead man has cobwebs in his mind and dust on his eyes.
2. Satan has the bad man by the heel, the man has a bird's nest in his hair (this reminds me of Hieronymous Bosch paintings), he might not have love or faith. His head hurts, he curses God with every move.
3. Glamour, lights and politics of sin. Bad man builds a ghetto, but ends up living in it himself. He pretends to be smart.
4. He tries to overpower Bob with the doctrine or the gun. He wants to take Bob to hell, all the while wearing a tuxedo with a flower in the lapel.

Day of the Locusts

Bob takes a road trip
After getting a degree
That he didn't want.

Dylan's songs don't usually add sound effects to underscore a literal point, but "Day of the Locusts" is an exception. This song from the 1970 album "New Morning" opens with what Dylan calls the "high whining trill" of locusts before he starts singing a song about showing up at a college to pick up an honorary degree that he doesn't want or believe in.

This is one of the first songs by Bob Dylan that I ever heard, and it's stuck with me for years as a favorite. I don't like the idea that he is showing up to be honored by people whom he seems to hold in contempt, but many of us can identify with having to endure a procedure when all we really want is to hop in the car and leave responsibilities and other people behind. And that's just what Bob and his girl do in this song.

1. Benches stained with tears and perspiration. Birds in the trees. No talking, just picking up the degree. Locusts are singing for Bob.
2. Judges in a dark room talking, it smells like a tomb. Dylan's about to walk out when he sees light. I suppose that this means there is something good to say about these fusty academics after all.
3. Trucks unloading outside in the heat. It's 90 degrees. A man's head explodes (I'm not sure what that means), and Bob hopes the pieces don't fall on him.
4. Bob takes off the robe, gets the diploma and drives to the Black Hills of South Dakota with his sweetheart. Very lucky.

You will notice in the photograph below Dylan on the stage of Princeton University in 1970, accepting the degree. He looks much happier there than he sounds in the song, where he's essentially complaining about being stuck. For ornithologists in the audience, this cicada brood was apparently known as Brood X.

Days of '49

Goldminer memoir
Of the bawdy good old days
And his saucy crew.

This is a faux-folk song, or maybe it's not even faux as I don't know how old a song has to be to be considered an antique. It's by John and Alan Lomax as well as another guy named Warner, about whom I know little. Bob Dylan recorded it for the 1970 album "Self Portrait." It's a straightforward tale of a derelict gold miner reminiscing about the good old days with his crew during the California gold rush. Or maybe they were the bad days. It seems like everyone winds up dead, usually because they were drinkers, gamblers, malingerers and prone to violence. I used the word "saucy" to refer directly to one of the lyrics, all of which are pasted below. Dylan's vary from the original song.

I'm ol' Tom Moore from the bummers shore in the good old golden days They call me a bummer and a ginsot too but what cares I for praise I wander around from town to town just like a rovin' sign And all the people say, "There goes Tom Moore in the days of 49" In the days of old, in the days of gold How often times I repine For the days of old, when we dug up the gold In the days of 49 My comrades, they all loved me well, a jolly, saucy crew A few hard cases I will recall though they all were brave and true Whatever the pitch they never would flinch They never would fret or whine Like good old bricks, they stood the kicks in the days of 49 In the days of old, in the days of gold How ofttimes I repine For the days of old, when we dug up the gold In the days of 49 There was New York Jake, the butcher's boy He was always getting tight And every time that he'd get full, he was spoiling for a fight Then Jake rampaged against a knife in the hands of ol' Bob Stein And over Jake they held a wake in the days of 49 In the days of old, in the days of gold How often times I repine For the days of old, when we dug up the gold In the days of 49 There was Poker Bill, one of the boys who was always in a game Whether he lost or whether he won, to him it was always the same He would ante up and draw his cards and he would you go a hatful blind In a game with death, Bill lost his breath, in the days of 49 In the days of old, in the days of gold In the day's times I repine In the days of old, in the days of gold Those were days of 49 There was ragshag Bill from Buffalo, I never will forget He would roar all day and he'd roar all night and I guess he's roarin' yet One day he fell in a prospect hole in a roaring bad design And in that hole he roared out his soul in the days of 49 In the days of old, in the days of gold How ofttimes I repine For the days of old, when we dug up the gold In the days of 49 Of the comrades all that I've had, there's none that's left to boast And I'm left alone in my misery like some ol' poor wandering ghost And I pass by from town to town, they call me 'The Rambling Sign' There goes Tom Moore, a bummer sure in the days of 49 In the days of old, in the days of gold How often times I repine For the days of old, when we dug up the gold In the days of 49 In the days of old, when we dug up the gold How ofttimes I repine In the days of old, in the days of gold In the days of 49, oh...
Here's a version by Kyle Thompson.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Dark Eyes

Life goes on outside
While Bob thinks about the dead
And distressed people.

"Dark Eyes" is one of the most perplexing songs that Bob Dylan has written, one that I find as resistant to analysis and scrutiny as a carbon cube or some kind of diamond. You can see through it from one side to the other, but it gives up absolutely nothing. It's all the more interesting for being the only "unproduced" song on the 1985 album "Empire Burlesque." A short closer to an album full of synthesizers, drums, overdubs and big '80s-style-sounding rock bands, "Dark Eyes" is spare and flat, just Dylan with his guitar and harmonica. He has told stories about being inspired to write the song by seeing a strung-out young woman in a hotel hallway in the middle of the night, and I suppose that that's as good a starting point as any, but the song in four short verses spins through a universe of its own. I have driven trucks through this song and come out just fine on the other end, but always without a sense of what I was driving through. The images are brilliant and real, and most of you will understand every sentiment, but that doesn't solve the riddle of this song. I don't even know what the riddle is.

1. Gentlemen talking, moon on the riverside, they're drinking but it's time for me to leave. He lives in a world where life and death are memorized, the earth is strung with lover's pearls and he sees dark eyes.
2. Cock crows, soldier prays at dawn, mother misses a child gone wandering, while "nature's beast" fears the rise of the dead who march to a drumbeat.
3. He hears that revenge is sweet, and maybe that's true, but he doesn't believe it because there game means "beauty goes unrecognized."
4. French girl in paradise, drunkard at the wheel. Hunger pays a heavy price to falling gods of speed and steel. Time short, days sweet, passion rules the arrow that flies (Where did he get some a great line? It should be a homily cross-stitched into framed pictures on the walls of farmhouses, next to the memento mori of the cuckoo clock and the tired floral wallpaper).

The Cuckoo Is a Pretty Bird

Gambler builds a house
To watch his girl and cuckoo
As they go riding.

Versions of the Cuckoo song have come and gone for a few hundred years, from what I can tell. I wouldn't be surprised if that 1,000-year old song "Sumer Is Icumen In" didn't provide a root for the song, what with its verse to the cuckoo singing in the summer:

Svmer is icumen in.
Lhude sing cuccu.
Groweþ sed
and bloweþ med
and springþ the wde nu.
Sing cuccu.

Awe bleteþ after lomb,

lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ,
bucke uerteþ,

murie sing cuccu.

Cuccu cuccu.
Wel singes þu cuccu
ne swik þu naver nu.

Or in modern English:

Spring has arrived
Loudly sing, cuckoo!
The seed is growing
And the meadow is blooming,
And the wood is coming into leaf now,
Sing, cuckoo!

The ewe is bleating after her lamb,

The cow is lowing after her calf;
The bullock is prancing,
The billy-goat farting,

Sing merrily, cuckoo!

Cuckoo, cuckoo,
You sing well, cuckoo,

Never stop now.

Bob Dylan's version, commercially released on his Gaslight Cafe live album, contains more references to the "newer" older versions of the song. The essence appears to be that the cuckoo fulfills its usual purpose of being a harbinger of summer. And MEANWHILE, a man wants to gamble his way into some winnings, then use that money to build a house so he can get his girl (as she goes riding by), because he doesn't have the poetic gift to woo her with his words alone.

Oh, the cuckoo is a pretty bird
That wobbles as she flies
But she never says coo-coo
Till the fourth day of july.

I've gambled in England
I've gambled in Spain
An' i bet you ten dollars
That i'll beat you next game.

I build me a cabin
On a mountain so high
So i can see Nelly
As she goes ridin' by.

I wish i was a poet
An' could write a fine hand
I'd write my love a letter

Lord, she would understand.

Here's Richard Thompson doing "Sumer Is Icumen In."

'Cross the Green Mountain

Civil war soldiers
Die on the battlefield.
Brothers fight brothers.

I've never been a big fan of Civil War movies, though to pan them for poor quality, especially when they are the Ted Turner-produced giant productions, is to take a churlish stance. They are more impressive than affecting to me, mainly because they expect the viewer to feel that unique feeling that Americans are supposed to have watching noble, proud tragic figures from one country shoot, hack and bomb each other to death in the name of preserving and overthrowing traditions both proud and base. Civil War buffs are a funny gang, and I've never understood or reacted to the feeling that they seek. I know there's pride, tragedy and a view toward the epic in any war, but reverence for the events that killed more than half a million people of the same country starts to look like Dungeons and Dragons fans embarking on their next dress-up adventure with the half orcs. I feel the same way about Bob Dylan's song "'Cross the Green Mountain," which appeared on the 2003 soundtrack to the film "Gods and Generals," and made its commercial appearance under Dylan's name on the eighth volume in the Bootleg Series a few years later. It's a song about the tragedy and waste of war, and is affecting and moving, but it leaves me unmoved even as I write this. It also makes the unfortunate choice of relying on the marcher's drum roll and a few of those melodic quirks of songs of the time that Robert Burns did to death on his documentary. There's a world of people out there who react to that fake nouveau 19th century Americana melancholy sound with great pleasure; I'm not one of those people. To me it's cliche. But wow, those last two verses... they're the only lines that show the emotion and beauty:

I'm ten miles outside the city
And I'm lifted away
In an ancient light
That is not of day

They were calm, they were blunt
We knew them all too well
We loved each other more than

We ever dared to tell

Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood)

Bob warns his woman
About a flood and suggests
That they leave, or else.

It's hard to capture the spirit of "Crash on the Levee," one of Bob Dylan's stranger songs from the 1960s. Its main appearances in his catalogue are in the 1975 album "The Basement Tapes," which was taken from the 1967 Saugerties recordings, as well as a different arrangement added to the end of the 1971 album "Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Vol. II." It's a quirky song based, in part, on the "James Alley Blues" of many years earlier, particularly the line about "sugar for sugar and salt for salt, if you go down in the flood it's gonna be your fault." That echo aside, it's one of the most creative and original blues songs that Dylan wrote, and is filled with the same kind of concrete-yet-mystical imagery that gives his music from the late 1960s such a rural, but spooky air. Generally, it goes like this:

1. Floodwaters will overflow the levee. Whatever you do, including rocking the joint and going to Williams Point, won't help much. If you do that, you'll lose your best friend and will have to find a new one. (I've always assumed that Bob's the best friend)
2. You can't "move" Bob, presumably change his mind about escaping the flood. If you go into the flood, it's your own fault. Cue the line about the best friend again.
3. You need to pack up and leave because this is going to be the meanest flood ever. It's king for king and queen for queen, as Bob notes. And then the best friend routine again.

Here's a chuggy version from a live performance with the Band. It's not a swampy-creepy as the album versions, but it's fun.

Covenant Woman

Man with covenant
Seeks single woman with same.
Christians only, please.

"Covenant Woman" comes smack in the middle of Bob Dylan's three-album engagement with Christianity. Appearing on the 1980 album "Saved," it takes to new levels the idea that "the Lord will provide." Instead of sending three boats to save the man on the roof from the rising flood waters, God gets the credit for sending Bob a woman who's operating under the same theological principles that he does.

1. She has a contract with God. She has a big reward coming in heaven and she shines like the morning star.
2. He's going to stick with her, especially for praying to God on Bob's behalf.
3. God's going to rebuild Bob the broken cup, and he knows that this will happen because of the evidence that he produces saying that God sent him her. If he did that, surely he will perform some heavier bodywork soon.
4. Isn't she lucky to be stuck to Bob on this fitful and passing journey through life. Coincidence of coincidences: he has a covenant just like she does.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Country Pie

Bob loves all the pies.
Show him a pie, he'll eat it.
Give him some more pie.

This next-to-last song on the "Nashville Skyline" album is a one-minute and 37-second slice of perfection a la mode. Forsake any attempt to look for meaning beyond what we all take to be true: country pie is the best, and everybody wants a piece. Dylan is at his sunniest here, if occasionally cryptic for the hell of it, and his Nashville backing musicians sound like they're ready for some pie too.

1. How does he love his pie? He likes it like old Saxophone Joe when he has the hogshead on his toe.
2. Like the fiddler who plays until dawn.
3. He loves it with raspberry, strawberry, lemon and lime, blueberry, apple, cherry, pumpkin and plum.
4. He loves his pie enough to be tied to a big white goose that will waddle its way toward pie.
5. He loves his pie enough that he won't waste it on throwing pie in someone's face. (But he doesn't need much)
6. He loves it enough that you can shake him up the peach tree and he'll go way faster than Little Jack Horner.

Corrina, Corrina

Bob misses a girl.
He has a bird that can sing.
That don't mean a thing.

People talk about the time when Bob Dylan "went electric," but he already was performing in the studio with plugged-in musicians in 1962, but, with the exception of the song "Mixed-Up Confusion," in a less raucous way. "Corrina, Corrina" was the only song on the 1963 album "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" to feature an electric backing band. As for Corrina herself, she appears to have been bailing out on men since Thomas Edison turned electricity into a viable commodity. In the Wikipedia entry for the song, there is a reference to a 1918 version published as sheet music and recorded in the same year by Vernon Dalhart, called "Has Anybody Seen My Corrine?" Various versions of the song appeared since then, referring to Corrine, Corrina and Maggie. Country-and-western versions as well as the folk music craze brought the song into Dylan's orbit.

1. Where has Corrina been? Please come home, baby.
2. I have a bird that whistles and sings, but life is meaningless without Corrina.
3. I'm thinking about Corrina. When I do, I cry.

And that's a wrap.

Here's a solo acoustic outtake version from The 50th Anniversary Collection.

Copper Kettle

Here's a good date night:
Let's make illegal moonshine
And cuddle outside.

"Copper Kettle" appeared on Bob Dylan's 1970 album "Self Portrait" with string accompaniment and backup singers doing the "bum-bum-bum" thing at intervals. If you thought that making illegal moonshine in the backwoods with hillbillies were anything other than romantic, think again. Evading the tax man and downing some white lightning with your beau is exactly what the singer proposes that he and his girl do. The song was written by Albert Frank Beddoe, and popularized by Joan Baez. On an album that many people couldn't stand, "Copper Kettle" was regarded as one of the standout tracks.

Instructions for date night:
1. Get kettle, coil
2. Fill with corn mash
3. Lay with me by the juniper in the moonlight
4. Watch the jugs fill
5. Preserve tradition since 1792 of not paying whiskey taxes.
Here are the lyrics, with chords:

G Am7 G Am7 G Am7 G Am7 Get you a copper kettle, get you a copper coil, G Am7 G Am7 C /b Am Fill it with new-made corn mash and never more you'll toil. C G You'll just lay there by the juniper C G while the moon is bright, C /b Am Watch them jugs a-filling C(maj7) G In the pale moonlight. G Am7 G Am7 G Am7 G Am7 Build you a fire with hickory, hickory, ash and oak, G Am7 G Am7 C Don't use no green or rotten wood; they'll get you by the smoke. G C You'll just lay there by the juniper G C while the moon is bright, G C Watch them jugs a-filling G In the pale moonlight. G Am7 G Am7 G Am7 G Am7 My daddy, he made whiskey; my granddaddy, he did too. G Am7 G Am7 ^Am C We ain't paid no whiskey tax since 1792. G C You'll just lay there by the juniper G C while the moon is bright, G C Watch them jugs a-filling G In the pale moonlight. C G In the pale moonlight.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Cool Water

If you and your mule
Were stuck in the desert, you'd
Want some water too.

One of the great country-and-western songs, "Cool Water" was written by Bob Nolan in 1936. Bob Dylan and the Band recorded it during their Basement Tapes sessions, and it made its commercial debut in 2014. I know the song because of the version that Marty Robbins did on the album "Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs." There are many other versions, including by Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood Mac, Johnny Cash, the Replacements, Burl Ives, Frankie Laine, Odetta and, improbably enough, the Muppets. I also love the passing reference to this song in "Old Dirt Road" by Harry Nilsson and John Lennon on Lennon's "Walls and Bridges" album.

The story is of a man and his mule named Dan, stuck in the desert, and when you pay attention to the lyrics, it becomes a terrifying, existential wasteland of a song:

All day I face the barren waste without the taste of water, Cool water. Old Dan and I with throats burned dry and souls that cry for water, Cool water. The night are cool and I'm a fool each stars a pool of water, Cool water. But with the dawn I'll wake and yawn and carry on to water, Cool water. (Chorus) Keep a movin' Dan, don't you listen to him Dan, he's a devil not a man and he spreads the burnin' sand with water. Dan can't you see that big green tree where the waters runnin' free and it's waiting there for me and you. Water, cool water. The shadows sway and seem to say tonight we pray for water, Cool water. And way up there He'll hear our prayer and show us where there's water, Cool Water. Dan's feet are sore he's yearning for just one thing more than water, Cool water. Like me, I guess, he'd like to rest where there's no quest for water, Cool water.


Good job, heartbreaker.
You weren't happy until
You walked out on me.

Here's a standard jilted-lover lament led by Bob Dylan on the first Traveling Wilburys album from 1988. I remember the summer this came out because I had my first job, as a busboy and dishwasher at the Village Cheese Shop in Haddonfield, New Jersey. I worked with an allegedly cocaine-addled, hostile cook and country-western songwriter, ass to ass in a tiny kitchen, with the radio always tune to 94.1 FM, WYSP Philadelphia, the classic rock station. The debut of the Traveling Wilburys was a hot event for rock n' roll fans. It was a super group comprising George Harrison, Jeff Lynne of the Electric Light Orchestra, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison. I can't remember if we first heard these songs on 94.1 or 93.3. WMMR, but I do remember that this and all the other songs were on all summer. To prevent illegal taping and distribution, the DJs would speak quickly at various points during the song, sullying the delivery and frustrating bootleggers. I fell in love with the album, and have always come back to it. "Congratuations" isn't one of the tracks that the record company and radio stations pumped as heavily as others, but it's a great song.

Here are the things for which Bob wishes his former lover congratulations:

1. Breaking my heart.
2. Tearing it all apart.
3. Leaving me in need.
4. Bringing me down.
5. Leaving me sorrow bound.
6. Getting a good deal.
7. How good you must feel.
8. Making me wait.
9. Making it too late.
10. Coming out on top.
11. Never knowing when to stop.


Don't tell anyone
How much he's in love with you.
It's confidential.

This is a 1956 hit single by Sonny Knight, one that Bob Dylan and the Band recorded during their Basement Tapes sessions in 1967. The original song uses call and response, as you can see from the first verse:

Confidential as a church at twilight (confidential) Sentimental as a rose in the moonlight (I love you) My love for you will always be (confidential) Confidential to me (ooh ooh ooh ooh)

I parsed this song thus:

Describe ways in which his love for you is confidential:
1. Like a church at twilight (assuming there's nobody there around that time)
2. Sentimental as a rose in the moonlight (what could be more so?)
3. A mother's prayer (For relief from her nagging children, no doubt)
4. A baby's cry (Something that's not normally confidential)
5. A lover's sigh (Nearly always confidential)

Why is it confidential:
1. It's too beautiful for other hearts to share. (As it should be)
2. It's our secret.
3. There's no need for prying eyes.

Cold Irons Bound

Wrong about my friends,
Wrong about you, wasted life.
And I'm still in love.

A recurring theme in Bob Dylan's songs, particularly from 1997 onward, is this combination:

1. I made lots of mistakes in life, particularly with leaving the right woman and staying with the wrong one.
2. The future is bleak and my bones are old and I wish things had turned out better.
3. I really blew it with you, but I love and miss you anyway, and there's nothing to be done about it.

"Cold Irons Bound" from "Time Out of Mind," released in 1997, is one such song. Have a look:

1. Voices/no one around. He's used up, fields brown. She passed by while he was on the way to church on Sunday. His love has taken such a long time to die.
2. Waist deep in mist/like I don't exist.
3. Sad to see beauty decay, sadder to see heart torn away.
4. Looking at you: out of control, like the universe has swallowed me whole.
5. Too many people to recall. Thought some were friends. Wrong!
6. Your love hasn't proved true.
7. "Some things last longer than you think they will / There are some kind of things you can never kill"
8. I'm thinking about you only. You're not.
9. I tried to love and protect you. I'll remember our shared joys.
10. You don't know what you do to me.
Here is a rip-roaring version of the song, way more exciting than the version on the album. And Dylan has that look on his face. the one that's halfway to bitter, yet still looks like the cat in the cream.

Here's another great live version. Dylan's in a good mood again, even shuffling somewhere between the twist and the moonwalk as he plays.