Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Little Drummer Boy

Bing, Bowie and Bob,
They all do the drummer boy.
It must be the drum.

"The Little Drummer Boy" was written by Katherine Kennicott Davis in 1941, and represents one of the best examples of the "ear worm" arsenal in popular music. There is no way to remove the "pa rum pum pum pum" refrain from your ears except for repeated applications of lye or death metal. So the experts say.

The famous versions of this song include the ones by the Von Trapp family singers, the Harry Simeone Chorale, and the utterly bizarre Christmas TV special version with Bing Crosby and David Bowie. Bob Dylan's version appears on the 2009 album "Christmas in the Heart."

Come they told me, pa rum pum pum pum
A new born King to see, pa rum pum pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring, pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the King, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

So to honor Him, pa rum pum pum pum,
When we come.

Little Baby, pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too, pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring, pa rum pum pum pum
That's fit to give the King, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

Shall I play for you, pa rum pum pum pum,
On my drum?

Mary nodded, pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for Him, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for Him, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

Then He smiled at me, pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum

Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts

Jack robs bank. Lily
Cuckolds Rosemary with Jim.
Rose kills him, then hangs.

This epic robbery, lust and revenge story from the 1975 album "Blood on the Tracks" feels to me like it could have contained a few more verses to explain what on earth is going on. But continuity isn't the point, it's atmosphere that Bob is going for here. In short:

- The Jack of Hearts and his boys are robbing the bank safe located two doors down from the gambling hall/saloon in an old western town. They're not even bothering to hide the noise they're making. Presumably everybody has something else on their minds. Most people are getting ready for the show that's going to happen in the saloon that night.
- And how people do have other things going on... Lily's hanging out with the girls backstage, playing cards. She came from a broken home and had plenty of affairs with plenty of men, but nobody like the Jack of Hearts.
- Then there's Big Jim. He owns the diamond mine and is a richie-rich about town. He's having an affair with Lily. He's also concerned about this Jack of Hearts fellow, but he's not sure why.
- The stage manager knows that something strange is happening, but he can't rouse the hanging judge, becuase the hanging judge is drunk. He runs into the lead actor, dressed as a monk.
- Big Jim's wife Rosemary wants out of her marriage. She's depressed and has contemplated suicide and done other bad things. She's looking to do one good deed before dying. She's also a drunk.
- The hanging judge: another drunk, but he's not drunk after the burglary ends and Jack flees town. Ultimately, he solves everybody's problems. Jack busts out at gunpoint, Rosemary drops Jim with her knife, the judge sobers up in time to send Rosemary to the gallows, and Lily is left alone with her thoughts.

Lily of the West

Young Flora trades up.
Her ex kills her new boyfriend.
He goes to prison.

Another siren singing her song and luring men to their doom, Flora is the so-called "Lily of the West." She and the story of her jealous lovers appeared on the 1973 album "Dylan," having been salvaged by Columbia Records from sessions that Bob Dylan recorded several years earlier. Most critics regard the album as a weak hodgepodge of Dylan slumming it through various traditional songs, though I like his Nashville-ish country sound of the period. This song does contain an annoying harpischord or some kind of antique keyboard instrument, but I think it's a consequence of the slapdash overdubbing that the producers stuck on the rehearsal tracks. I still wonder whether the attitude in this  As for the song, it's an old Irish and English ballad, and has been covered many times by many people. A man falls in love with Flora, a girl in Louisville. She leaves him for another man. He kills the new guy and goes to prison, and remains in love with Flora. Don't try this at home.

Like a Ship

I wish she'd leave, as
Her love is a ship, and I'm
Gonna be keel-hauled.

A Traveling Wilburys single. The lyrics speak for themselves. The song was released as a bonus track on the 2007 reissue of the first Traveling Wilburys album. The album first came out in 1988.

Like a ship on the sea, her love rose over me
Like a ship on the sea, her love rose over me
Go 'way, go 'way, let me be

Like a weepin' willow tree, her love hangs over me
Like a weepin' willow tree, her love hangs over me
Go 'way, go 'way, let me be.

Standin' on the white cliffs of Dover
Lookin' out into space
Another channel to cross over
Another dream to chase

The night is dark and dreary
The wind is howling down
Your heart is hanging heavy
When your sweet love ain't around

Like a leaf on a tree, her love is shakin' me
Like a leaf on a tree, her love is shakin' me
Go 'way, go 'way, let me be
(Hauntin' me like a ship on the sea)
Like a leaf, like a ship on the sea
(Hauntin' me like a ship on the sea)

Like a Rolling Stone

Now you feel like a
Stone alone without a home
Because of your tone.

This is Bob Dylan's most famous song, the one that elevated him from a hit to a legend. "Like a Rolling Stone" was the opening song on the 1965 album "Highway 61 Revisited," and there's never been anything before or after to match it. There are plenty of words written by many people about the song, a six-minute put-down of an unidentified person or people. I won't add too many to them, nor will I get into the possible subjects of the song. It's a one-size-fits-all poisoned-pen letter to anyone whom you don't like. The only twist in the song, at least to me, seems to be a nearly envious tone about having nothing left, like one of the Christian saints (Francis of Assisi, for example), or various beggars who drop everything on the path to enlightenment. Only in this case, that path seems extra hard because the subject of the song, a woman of course, doesn't seem to have been looking for enlightenment.

In short:

- You dressed fine, threw bums dimes.
- People warned you of imminent falling. You thought they joked.
- You used to laugh at poor people and losers, and now you're one.
- Describe the following feelings: no home, unknown, like rolling stone.
- You were well schooled, but now you're in the school of hard knocks.
- You're making deals with shady people. Sex, shelter, food, pharmaceuticals, presumably.
- Servants and entertainers always hated you.
- Enter chrome horse and diplomat with Siamese cat on his shoulder. He fleeced you, whoever he is. And what about that cat?
- Everybody's having a good time, but to be properly prepared, you should sell everything you own.
- Enter the Napoleon in rags who used to amuse you. He wants you now and you can't say no.
- And of course, the blistering final assessment of being wide awake and self aware: "When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose. You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal."

Monday, June 29, 2015

Life Is Hard

I made it alone,
But I find that life is hard
When you're not with me.

Everybody knows what a bummer it is not to have your sweetheart by your side. Bob Dylan explores this theme in "Life Is Hard," a slow number off the 2009 album "Together Through Life," and the opposite of the wish that the album title suggests:

1. Evening winds still. No way no will. On guard, life hard, no you near me.
2. You were a good friend, but now you're gone. By school yard, life hard, no you near me.
3. Empty since you left. Don't know what's wrong or right. Need strength to fight the world.
4. No more touch, heart locked up, haven't felt that much. Life hard, no you near me.
5. Sunset, time to go, chilly breeze. No memories, just dreams locked up. Life hard, no you near me.

License to Kill

Mankind hurts the earth.
Space travel, lies and deceit
Will destroy us all.

"License to Kill" is one of those songs that shows off Bob Dylan in his cranky old man outfit, though he was in his early 40s when he released this song on the album "Infidels." He inveighs against the space race, general human mistreatment of well meaning people, world distruction, lies and the usual assortment of things that were on his mind at the time.

1. Oh, man has invented his doom
First step was touching the moon

2. Now, they take him and they teach him and they groom him for life
And they set him on a path where he’s bound to get ill
Then they bury him with stars
Sell his body like they do used cars

3. His brain has been mismanaged with great skill
All he believes are his eyes
And his eyes, they just tell him lies

4. Oh, man is opposed to fair play
He wants it all and he wants it his way

All the while there's this woman who lives on Bob's block and who appears in the chorus. She keeps asking who will take away the license to kill that belongs to this man who's been lied to and acts the way he has been groomed. I would if I could.

Here's a version that Dylan performed on the David Letterman show:

And the studio version, which is nothing like it:

The Levee's Gonna Break

Forget the levee.
Blocking floods isn't my job,
But loving you is.

Two things are happening here. One is that Bob Dylan's favorite metaphor, the flood, is threatening to overwhelm the levee. Regarding this, we have the following support:

- The levee, the rain and the state of human affairs: "God's work," "people are greedy," "people are desperate," "people are opportunistic."

- If it keep on rainin' the levee gonna break
Everybody saying this is a day only the Lord could make

- Some of these people gonna strip you of all they can take

- Some of these people don't know which road to take

- Some people on the road carrying everything that they own
Some people got barely enough skin to cover their bones

- Plenty of cheap stuff out there still around that you take

The state of Bob's love life: It's a combination of "you're hearthless," "I love you," "you're sexy," "you don't love me," "you make love with me" and "come back to me."

- I picked you up from the gutter and this is the thanks I get
You say you want me to quit ya, I told you no, not just yet

- I look in your eyes, I see nobody other than me
I see all that I am and all I hope to be

- When I'm with you I forget I was ever blue
Without you there's no meaning in anything I do

- Put on your cat clothes, Mama, put on your evening dress
A few more years of hard work then there'll be a thousand years of happiness

- I tried to get you to love me, but I won't repeat that mistake

- I woke up this morning, butter and eggs in my bed
I ain't got enough room to even raise my head

- Come back, baby, say we never more will part
Don't be a stranger without a brain or heart

The state of Bob's heart: "I worked hard," "I gave away everything I owned," "I paid my dues and am reborn," "I'm still hoping for a better tomorrow" and "Other people might be sleeping, but I am awake, and I see everything for what it is."

- Well I worked on the levee Mama, both night and day
I got to the river and I threw my clothes away

- I paid my time and now I'm as good as new
They can't take me back, not unless I want them to

- I can't stop here, I ain't ready to unload
Riches and salvation can be waiting behind the next bend in the road

- Some people still sleepin', some people are wide awake

The song is available on the 2006 album "Modern Times."

Let's Stick Together

We should not split up.
We made a promise, and we
Have a little child.

Wilbert Harrison failed to chart with this single when he released it in 1962. He changed it to "Let's Work Together," issued it again in 1969 and it was a big hit. It's not hard to see why. It's simple, it moves and it's fun. Bryan Ferry scored his highest-charting single with this song in 1976 on the album of the same name, and featured an incredibly strange vocal interlude from Jerry Hall. Bob Dylan's version opens his 1988 album "Down in the Groove," almost universally regarded as one of his two worst albums. It's a pity because Dylan's version of this song is a ramshackle good time. Here are the lyrics:

Well, a young marriage vow, you know, it's very sacred
The man put us together, now, you want to make it
Stick together
Come on, come on, stick together.

You know, you made a vow, not to leave one another, never
Well, ya never miss your water till your well runs dry
Come on, baby, give our love a try, let's stick together
Come on, come on, stick together
We made a vow, not to leave one another, never.

Well, ya never miss your water till your well runs dry
Come on, baby, give our love a try, let's stick together
Come on, come on, stick together
You know, we made a vow, not to leave one another, never.

It might be tough for a while, but think of the child
Cannot be happy without his mom and his pappy
Let's stick together
Come on, come on, stick together
You know, we made a vow, not to leave one another, never.

Let Me Die in My Footsteps

Bob says, if there's war,
Let him die outside, not in
A fallout shelter.

Better to die standing up than on your knees, more or less. "Let Me Die in My Footsteps" is Bob Dylan's reaction to fallout shelters and the threat of nuclear war. Dylan suggests that it's better to enjoy the world and its natural wonders and if you must die, you die amid them rather than cooped in a living grave. 

To quote:
I will not go down under the ground
’Cause somebody tells me that death’s comin’ ’round
An’ I will not carry myself down to die
When I go to my grave my head will be high
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground

There’s been rumors of war and wars that have been
The meaning of life has been lost in the wind
And some people thinkin’ that the end is close by
’Stead of learnin’ to live they are learnin’ to die
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground

Let me drink from the waters where the mountain streams flood
Let the smell of wildflowers flow free through my blood
Let me sleep in your meadows with the green grassy leaves
Let me walk down the highway with my brother in peace
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground

Go out in your country where the land meets the sun
See the craters and the canyons where the waterfalls run
Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho
Let every state in this union seep down deep in your souls
And you’ll die in your footsteps
Before you go down under the ground

The song was intended for the 1963 album "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," but replaced by "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall." It appeared on the album "The Broadside Ballads, Vol. 1," and after that on the first edition of the Bootleg Series in 1991.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Let It Be Me

Don't break up with him.
There's no life without your love.
Don't leave him lonely.

This is an English version of the song "Je t'appartiens" by Gilbert Becaud and Pierre Delanoe. Tons of singers have done this one. Dylan recorded it for the 1970 album "Self Portrait." It's one of the numerous cover versions of middle-of-the-road pop music that people see as Dylan's confounding attempt to shed his status as a seer and a musical visionary, and to take on the guise of just another singer who's not beset by batshit-crazy fans. I've also included a rare version from the sessions for the 1981 album "Shot of Love." 

I bless the day I found you
I want to stay around you
And so I beg you
Let it be me

Don't take this Heaven from one
If you must cling to someone
Now and forever
Let it be me

Each time we meet, love
I find complete love
Without your sweet love
What would life be?

So never leave me lonely
Tell me you love me only
And that you'll always
Let it be me

Each time we meet love
I find complete love
Without your sweet love
What would life be?

So never leave me lonely
Tell me you love me only
And that you'll always
Let it be me

Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat

That's a nice new hat.
But I wish you would not let
Your lovers wear it.

"Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" is a rollicking blues number that provides the slightest bit of comic relief on the otherwise broad and rangy but consistently downbeat masterpiece album "Blonde on Blonde," from 1966. The pill-box style is classy, the leopard-skin is not. The lady in question wears the hat and charms her admirer, all while behaving poorly toward him.

1. You have a new leopard-skin pill-box hat. How does your head feel in it?
2. You look pretty in it. I want to jump on it. It's expensive. It balances awkwardly on you - "just like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine."
3. We should go watch the sun rise. I'll wear my belt on my head. You wear the hat.
4. The doctor told me I shouldn't see you because it's bad for my health. I went anyway. I found him there. You were cheating on me with him, and the bugger was wearing your hat.
5. You have a new boyfriend. I saw you and he doing it in the garage because you forgot to shut the door. You think he wants you for your money, but I know that he wants you because of the hat.

Lenny Bruce

Lenny was the best.
He was funny and truthful,
And better than you.

Bob Dylan's eulogy to comedian "Lenny Bruce" arrived in 1981 on the "Shot of Love" album, 14 years after Bruce died. It's a ham-fisted ode that serves mostly to chide the listener over his or her ability to be as real and as human as Bruce.

1. Lenny dead. Ghost alive. He never won no Golden Globe award. He was more outlaw than you ever were.
2. He had problems. He was funny. He was truthful. He was knowledgeable. He wanted to die.
3. He committed no crime. I rode with him in a taxi for 1.5 miles, but it felt like months. He's gone, just like the people who killed him.
4. He was lawbreaker, they called him sick. He showed wise men up as fools. They labeled him "like they do with pants and shirts." He fought in a war where victories hurt. He was bad. He was the brother you never had.

Live version:

Studio version:

Lay Lady Lay

Bob wants you in bed.
He has balls and beds of brass.
You're lying on them.

I've never tried such a direct approach to get someone to fool around with me. Maybe I was doing it wrong. "Lay Lady Lay," from the 1969 album "Nashville Skyline," is a Dylan fan favorite, and an unabashed invitation to a night on the pillow. Dylan wrote the song for inclusion in the soundtrack to the film "Midnight Cowboy," but didn't file in time. It became a big country and pop hit all the same.

1. Lay across my big brass bed. I'll show you what's in your mind.
2. Stay with me until dawn, make me smile. I have dirty clothes, so maybe I should take them off. At least my hands are washed. You're pretty hot.
3. Let's have cake and eat it too. Wink wink. I'm right in front of you. Why wait?
4. I want you at night. I want you in the morning. Let's not delay our amorous adventures.

Lay Down Your Weary Tune

Though your song be good,
Nature can do it better,
Be quiet; listen

"Lay Down Your Weary Tune" isn't like any other Bob Dylan song, at least the way I hear it. The song was recorded in 1963 for the album "The Times They Are a-Changin'," but was left off the cut. It appears on the 1985 box set compilation "Biograph." I read on Wikipedia that Dylan said he was trying to capture the feeling of a Scottish ballad that he heard on an old 78-rpm record. I can see that. Rather than striving for the surreal, he pursues a sound of natural beauty, to use Neil Young's term from the "Harvest Moon" album, that he tries to convey with guitar and voice. I hear the sound of waterfalls and wind in the trees, waves on the beach and the rhythms of the universe, especially in Dylan's use of alliteration and the pairing of words that don't necessarily go together -- the "strength of strings," for example. Have a look. It makes me think a little of William Wordsworth, or even Henry Wadsworth Longfellow with Hiawatha on the Gitche Gumee:

Lay down your weary tune, lay down
Lay down the song you strum
And rest yourself ’neath the strength of strings
No voice can hope to hum
(This verse forms a chorus after each of the next verses)

Struck by the sounds before the sun
I knew the night had gone
The morning breeze like a bugle blew
Against the drums of dawn

The ocean wild like an organ played
The seaweed’s wove its strands
The crashin’ waves like cymbals clashed
Against the rocks and sands

I stood unwound beneath the skies
And clouds unbound by laws
The cryin’ rain like a trumpet sang
And asked for no applause

The last of leaves fell from the trees
And clung to a new love’s breast
The branches bare like a banjo played
To the winds that listened best

Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie

Want to fix your blues?
Woody Guthrie has the tool
Inside his songbox.

Bob Dylan recited "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie" at the end of a concert on April 12, 1963 at Town Hall in New York City. It's easier to post this tour de force here instead of trying to boil it down. It's a long complaint filed as a preamble followed by a cadenza with the remedy to the complaint. The recording is available on the first edition of the Bootleg Series, released in 1991.

When yer head gets twisted and yer mind grows numb
When you think you're too old, too young, too smart or too dumb
When yer laggin' behind an' losin' yer pace
In a slow-motion crawl of life's busy race
No matter what yer doing if you start givin' up
If the wine don't come to the top of yer cup
If the wind's got you sideways with with one hand holdin' on
And the other starts slipping and the feeling is gone
And yer train engine fire needs a new spark to catch it
And the wood's easy findin' but yer lazy to fetch it
And yer sidewalk starts curlin' and the street gets too long
And you start walkin' backwards though you know its wrong
And lonesome comes up as down goes the day
And tomorrow's mornin' seems so far away
And you feel the reins from yer pony are slippin'
And yer rope is a-slidin' 'cause yer hands are a-drippin'
And yer sun-decked desert and evergreen valleys
Turn to broken down slums and trash-can alleys
And yer sky cries water and yer drain pipe's a-pourin'
And the lightnin's a-flashing and the thunder's a-crashin'
And the windows are rattlin' and breakin' and the roof tops a-shakin'
And yer whole world's a-slammin' and bangin'
And yer minutes of sun turn to hours of storm
And to yourself you sometimes say
"I never knew it was gonna be this way
Why didn't they tell me the day I was born"
And you start gettin' chills and yer jumping from sweat
And you're lookin' for somethin' you ain't quite found yet
And yer knee-deep in the dark water with yer hands in the air
And the whole world's a-watchin' with a window peek stare
And yer good gal leaves and she's long gone a-flying
And yer heart feels sick like fish when they're fryin'
And yer jackhammer falls from yer hand to yer feet
And you need it badly but it lays on the street
And yer bell's bangin' loudly but you can't hear its beat
And you think yer ears might a been hurt
Or yer eyes've turned filthy from the sight-blindin' dirt
And you figured you failed in yesterdays rush
When you were faked out an' fooled white facing a four flush
And all the time you were holdin' three queens
And it's makin you mad, it's makin' you mean
Like in the middle of Life magazine
Bouncin' around a pinball machine
And there's something on yer mind you wanna be saying
That somebody someplace oughta be hearin'
But it's trapped on yer tongue and sealed in yer head
And it bothers you badly when your layin' in bed
And no matter how you try you just can't say it
And yer scared to yer soul you just might forget it
And yer eyes get swimmy from the tears in yer head
And yer pillows of feathers turn to blankets of lead
And the lion's mouth opens and yer staring at his teeth
And his jaws start closin with you underneath
And yer flat on your belly with yer hands tied behind
And you wish you'd never taken that last detour sign
And you say to yourself just what am I doin'
On this road I'm walkin', on this trail I'm turnin'
On this curve I'm hanging
On this pathway I'm strolling, in the space I'm taking
In this air I'm inhaling
Am I mixed up too much, am I mixed up too hard
Why am I walking, where am I running
What am I saying, what am I knowing
On this guitar I'm playing, on this banjo I'm frailin'
On this mandolin I'm strummin', in the song I'm singin'
In the tune I'm hummin', in the words I'm writin'
In the words that I'm thinkin'
In this ocean of hours I'm all the time drinkin'
Who am I helping, what am I breaking
What am I giving, what am I taking
But you try with your whole soul best
Never to think these thoughts and never to let
Them kind of thoughts gain ground
Or make yer heart pound
But then again you know why they're around
Just waiting for a chance to slip and drop down
"Cause sometimes you hear'em when the night times comes creeping
And you fear that they might catch you a-sleeping
And you jump from yer bed, from yer last chapter of dreamin'
And you can't remember for the best of yer thinking
If that was you in the dream that was screaming
And you know that it's something special you're needin'
And you know that there's no drug that'll do for the healin'
And no liquor in the land to stop yer brain from bleeding
And you need something special
Yeah, you need something special all right
You need a fast flyin' train on a tornado track
To shoot you someplace and shoot you back
You need a cyclone wind on a stream engine howler
That's been banging and booming and blowing forever
That knows yer troubles a hundred times over
You need a Greyhound bus that don't bar no race
That won't laugh at yer looks
Your voice or your face
And by any number of bets in the book
Will be rollin' long after the bubblegum craze
You need something to open up a new door
To show you something you seen before
But overlooked a hundred times or more
You need something to open your eyes
You need something to make it known
That it's you and no one else that owns
That spot that yer standing, that space that you're sitting
That the world ain't got you beat
That it ain't got you licked
It can't get you crazy no matter how many
Times you might get kicked
You need something special all right
You need something special to give you hope
But hope's just a word
That maybe you said or maybe you heard
On some windy corner 'round a wide-angled curve

But that's what you need man, and you need it bad
And yer trouble is you know it too good
"Cause you look an' you start getting the chills

"Cause you can't find it on a dollar bill
And it ain't on Macy's window sill
And it ain't on no rich kid's road map
And it ain't in no fat kid's fraternity house
And it ain't made in no Hollywood wheat germ
And it ain't on that dimlit stage
With that half-wit comedian on it
Ranting and raving and taking yer money
And you thinks it's funny
No you can't find it in no night club or no yacht club
And it ain't in the seats of a supper club
And sure as hell you're bound to tell
That no matter how hard you rub
You just ain't a-gonna find it on yer ticket stub
No, and it ain't in the rumors people're tellin' you
And it ain't in the pimple-lotion people are sellin' you
And it ain't in no cardboard-box house
Or down any movie star's blouse
And you can't find it on the golf course
And Uncle Remus can't tell you and neither can Santa Claus
And it ain't in the cream puff hair-do or cotton candy clothes
And it ain't in the dime store dummies or bubblegum goons
And it ain't in the marshmallow noises of the chocolate cake voices
That come knockin' and tappin' in Christmas wrappin'
Sayin' ain't I pretty and ain't I cute and look at my skin
Look at my skin shine, look at my skin glow
Look at my skin laugh, look at my skin cry
When you can't even sense if they got any insides
These people so pretty in their ribbons and bows
No you'll not now or no other day
Find it on the doorsteps made out-a paper mache¥
And inside it the people made of molasses
That every other day buy a new pair of sunglasses
And it ain't in the fifty-star generals and flipped-out phonies
Who'd turn yuh in for a tenth of a penny
Who breathe and burp and bend and crack
And before you can count from one to ten
Do it all over again but this time behind yer back
My friend
The ones that wheel and deal and whirl and twirl
And play games with each other in their sand-box world
And you can't find it either in the no-talent fools
That run around gallant
And make all rules for the ones that got talent
And it ain't in the ones that ain't got any talent but think they do
And think they're foolin' you
The ones who jump on the wagon
Just for a while 'cause they know it's in style
To get their kicks, get out of it quick
And make all kinds of money and chicks
And you yell to yourself and you throw down yer hat
Sayin', "Christ do I gotta be like that
Ain't there no one here that knows where I'm at
Ain't there no one here that knows how I feel
Good God Almighty

No but that ain't yer game, it ain't even yer race
You can't hear yer name, you can't see yer face
You gotta look some other place
And where do you look for this hope that yer seekin'
Where do you look for this lamp that's a-burnin'
Where do you look for this oil well gushin'
Where do you look for this candle that's glowin'
Where do you look for this hope that you know is there
And out there somewhere
And your feet can only walk down two kinds of roads
Your eyes can only look through two kinds of windows
Your nose can only smell two kinds of hallways
You can touch and twist
And turn two kinds of doorknobs
You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You'll find God in the church of your choice
You'll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital

And though it's only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You'll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown

Knockin' on Heaven's Door

Tough gunfighter dies,
But first he turns back into
An old mama's boy.

This quickie recorded for Sam Peckinpah's 1973 film "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" improbably turned into one of the most-covered and best-known songs that Bob Dylan ever wrote. The song appears in the original theatrical version when James Coburn, playing Pat Garrett, hops along with old buddies Katy Jurado and Slim Pickens to get some information on the whereabouts of Billy (Kris Kristofferson). The mission doesn't go as planned, and Slim takes a fatal bullet. His gun-toting wife Katy sits by his side as he dies, and this song plays over the scene of his expiration by the river, the angry clouds and the fading sun glowering in the distance. It's a strong scene, though Peckinpah's "preview" version that, to me, is the superior cut of the film, leaves out the vocals. Leaving the film aside, it's a request to his mother:

1. Take off my badge, it's no use to me. I can't see because I'm dying.
2. Bury my guns, I don't need them. I'm dying.

The haiku refers to the song, not the song as it appears in the film. Pickens's character goes out like a man, not an old mama's boy.

The film scene:

The song:

Kingsport Town

Cops chase man from town.
He messed around with a girl.
He thinks she'll miss him.

"Kingsport Town" is a 1962 song from the sessions for "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan." The song didn't make the album, and was released in 1991 on the first edition of the Bootleg Series. The story is simple yet obscure:

1. It's winter, a man is on the run and cold. He's thinking of a girl.
2. Does she remember him? She's the reason he had to leave Kingsport and the reason that the police are chasing him.
3. They're chasing him because he fell for her.
4. Who's going to stroke her black hair and sandy skin and kiss her "Memphis lips?"
5. Who's going to walk by her side and reassure her? Who's going to be her man and look her in the eye and hold her "bad-luck hand?"
6. Damn, it's cold out.

King of France

The king of France, he
Comes to America. He
Can't be understood.

This poorly recorded Basement Tapes song from 1967 doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The King of France comes to America and has various adventures. I don't have the lyrics handy, so you'll have to trust me on this one. The recording quality is so bad that some of the words are hard to make out against all the distortion. It wouldn't feel out of place on "White Light/White Heat" by the Velvet Underground, but you can find it on volume 11 of the Bootleg Series. (I've often wondered whether this song has its roots in the Dauphin character from "Huckleberry Finn," but it's anybody's guess)

Kind-Hearted Woman Blues

His "kind-hearted" gal
Packs a .32, but he
Thinks he might shoot first.

"Kind-Hearted Woman" is another song in the long series of woman-hating songs by blues artists. This one, which Bob Dylan performed at the Gaslight Cafe in 1962, is based on blues master Robert Johnson's first studio recording from 1936. His song was in turn based on several other blues hits by other people from that time. The last three lines are lifted from the "James Alley Blues" by Richard "Rabbit" Brown. The song is available on the hard-to-find "50th Anniversary Collection," first volume.

I got a kind-hearted woman studies evil all the time.
I got a kind-hearted woman studies evil all the time.
She would kill me just to have it on her mind                                                    

She got a .32 special, built on a cross of wood
She got a .32 special, built on a cross of wood
I got a 38-20, man, that's twice as good.

Sometime I'm thinking, you're too good to die
Sometime I'm thinking, you're too good to die
Other times I'm a-thinking you ought to be buried alive.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues

Bob goes to New York.
He might make it there, but he
Makes it nowhere else.

"Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" comes from the 1965 album "Highway 61 Revisited." It is one of Dylan's greatest songs. The runaway imagery that often obscures the diamond clarity of his songs is kept to a manageable level. The fractured narrative from verse to verse that can turn a song into a pond disturbed by ripples from a rock here makes a series of related if discrete episodes. The music rolls along with resignation, but it's punchy instead of bloated. The saloon piano sound is a standout for me. There are more good qualities, but you might as well just listen to it and admire.

1. Lost in the rain in Ciudad Juarez on Easter Sunday. No gravity, etc. Suddenly on Rue Morgue Avenue with hungry, aggressive women. 
2. Saint Annie: Tell her thanks. I can't move. Doc doesn't know what's wrong with me.
3. Melinda: Goddess of gloom. Also a prostitute.
4. Housing Project Hill choices: fortune or fame. It's a trick. By the way, you should leave if you want to get silly. The cops don't need your trouble.
5. Boasting authorities who blackmailed the sergeant-at-arms. Then there's the story of Angel who showed up from Los Angeles and didn't take well to New York.
6. Round one: burgundy. Round two: harder chaser. Game got rough. Joke was on me. I couldn't handle it. Heading back to New York City.

Just Like a Woman

How does she take, fake
Love and ache? Like a woman.
But see how she breaks.

One of Dylan's big hits, "Just Like a Woman" arrived on the 1966 album "Blonde on Blonde." Dylan has received praise for writing a perfect, bittersweet pop song, and has drawn criticism for writing a song that some people find condescending and misogynistic. All I know is that I've never met a woman who knew this song and didn't know all the words from singing along to it.

1. No pain, all rain. Baby's got new clothes, but no more ribbons or bows. She takes, makes love and aches like a woman, but breaks like a little girl.
2. Side story: Queen Mary. Bob goes to visit her. Meanwhile, Baby can't be blessed until she discovers that she's like everyone else with her various drug problems and jewelry. She takes, makes love and aches one way, but breaks another way.
3. Bob's in the rain, he's dying of thirst, he seeks comfort from the woman in question, but something between them didn't work out.
4. Next time we meet, don't let anybody know about the time when you had the advantage over me. And on a related note, you fake, make love and ache like a woman. But you break like a little girl.

Journey Through Dark Heat (Where Are You Tonight?)

Woman and friends gone,
Parties and despair remain.
Can he persevere?

Sometimes it's hard to be a woman, spurning all the love of just one man.

Bob Dylan's attitude toward life, as expressed in his music, was none too bright in 1978. He was on the road after his separation from his wife, changing his old songs into soft-edged musical revue numbers, and looking and sounding like he was sick and tired of everything. "Journey Through Dark Heat (Where Are You Tonight?)" reads like a bunch of neuroses pureed in a blender, with the results left out in the sun on an old paper plate with an empty bottle of cheap gin and half a pack of menthols.

1. Train in rain, tears on letter, miss woman/want touch. She drifting like satellite.
2. Green smoky haze. She bathe in heat.
3. Cherokee father say relationship no last.
4. Angry woman got baby. Stripper on stage with clock and page of unwritten book. Where u at tonight?
5. Truth: obscure, profound, pure. Can't live with it without risk of explosion. You and me agree sacrifice and road for us.
6. Marcel, St. John and I: strong dudes full of doubt. Couldn't share thoughts with my women. She find them out all same.
7. She put flowers on shelf. I climb her hair. She feel my despair. 
8. Lion? In road. Demon? Escaped. Million dreams? Gone. Landscape? Being raped. Her beauty? Faded. 
9. Fight with my twin. He my enemy within. We both lose. My maladies: horseplay and disease. Law no notice.
10. Your partners in crime want my money. Your new boyfriend is an addict. I kick him in face. Didn't want to, but he leave me no choice.
11. Bite into root of forbidden fruit. Juice run down my leg (Hint: it's not juice). I see your boss who don't know loss, don't know how to beg.
12. Dark room, diamond gloom. Path to the stars. You think this life fun? Not so. Check these scars.
13. Dawn. I arrive. I survive. Can't believe I alive. All good, but no you make not right. Where u at tonight?

Joshua Gone Barbados

Joshua says he'll
Back the sugarcane strikers,
But he bails instead.

Breaking news from St. Vincent in the Caribbean: Ebenezer Joshua, head of the labor union, goes on vacation while the sugar cane workers strike. Three men die as a result. Or so says Eric von Schmidt, who wrote this song about the trade union leader and later politician, assemblyman and chief minister of this poor island nation. Supporters of Joshua say this reading is erroneous.

Dylan's performances of the song can be found on volume 11 of the Bootleg Series, which is a compilation of the 1967 Basement Tapes sessions, as well as the third volume of the super-rare 50th Anniversary Collection. That version features him performing the song with von Schmidt.

Cane standin' in the fields gettin' old and red
Lot of misery in Georgetown dreamin' layin' dead
Joshua head of the government he said strike for better pay
Cane cutters are strikin' but Joshua gone away
Joshua gone Barbados staying in a big hotel
People on St Vincent got many sad tales to tell
The sugar mill owner told the strikers I don't need you to cut my cane
Bring me another bunch of fellas your strike be all in vain
Get a bunch of tough fellas bring 'em from Zion Hill
Bring 'em in a bus to Georgetown know somebody could kill
Sunny Child the overseer I swear he's an ignorant man
Walkin' the the canefields pistol in his hand
Joshua gone Barbados just like he don't know people on the island got no place to go
Police givin' protection new fellas cuttin' the cane
Strikers can't do nothin' strike be all in vain
Sunny Child cussed the strikers wave his pistol round
They're beatin' Sunny with the cutlers beat him to the ground
There's a lot of misery in Georgetown you can hear all the women bawl
Joshua gone Barbados he don't care at all
Cane standin' in the fields gettin' old and red
Sunny Child in the hospital pistol on his bed
I wish I could go to England Trinidad or Curacao
People on the island got no place to go
Joshua gone Barbados stayin' in a big hotel
People on St Vincent got many sad tales to tell


This is a decree
From the king: You are informed
That Jolene is queen.

"Jolene" -- not the Dolly Parton song of the same name -- is an inoffensive enough song on "Together Through Life." The lyrics reinforce one major point:

"Baby, I am the king and you're the queen."

Jolene's other qualities include walking down High Street in the sun, making dead men rise because of her charms, making Bob get a gun and sleep by your door, making Bob willing to sacrifice himself for you, arousing Bob toward feelings of possessing you, making him keep his hands in his pockets and moving along, steering Bob toward thoughts of gambling, her big brown eyes that set off sparks and her ability to make a pessimist feel like an optimist.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015


Man of influence
And power doesn't know how
To fix the world.

I've written 15 haiku to "Jokerman" if I've written a single one. I can't figure out this song, and every interpretation I've read by others sounds overdone and silly. My impressions don't even form a conclusion, so ethereal is this song, which opened the 1983 album "Infidels." The haiku I finally settled on is subject to scorn and derision for how off base it probably is. Help me out, friends. I'm more than happy to rewrite this.

Standing on the waters casting your bread
While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing
Distant ships sailing into the mist
You were born with a snake in both of your fists while a hurricane was blowing
Freedom just around the corner for you
But with the truth so far off, what good will it do?

- Feels like a Jesus thing here. Casting bread, walking on water. Sermon on the Mount, Galilee and so on and on.
- Idol: Satan, pagan, etc.
- Ships in the mist and freedom just around the corner but useless: pretty, melancholy images. Something ideal close, but too far away to touch.
- Snakes/hurricane: Snake like the Old Testament? Jesus triumphs over evil? Dunno.

Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune
Bird fly high by the light of the moon
Oh, oh, oh, Jokerman

So swiftly the sun sets in the sky
You rise up and say goodbye to no one
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread
Both of their futures, so full of dread, you don’t show one
Shedding off one more layer of skin
Keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within

- No idea. Thieves travel by night. Three days in the tomb. Resurrection.
- Fools rush in/angels, yes, no explanation needed.
- Shedding off skin - like a snake again. Is this even the same person from the first verse? Or is it some more dubious Messiah or would-be Messiah? Is this Messiah a deceiver? See next verse regarding the manipulator of crowds and the dream twister.

Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune
Bird fly high by the light of the moon
Oh, oh, oh, Jokerman

You’re a man of the mountains, you can walk on the clouds
Manipulator of crowds, you’re a dream twister
You’re going to Sodom and Gomorrah
But what do you care? Ain’t nobody there would want to marry your sister
Friend to the martyr, a friend to the woman of shame
You look into the fiery furnace, see the rich man without any name

- Feels more like a Christ/Antichrist remix. Manipulator AND friend to martyrs, sodomites and whores, just like Jesus (not sure about the gay part).

Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune
Bird fly high by the light of the moon
Oh, oh, oh, Jokerman

Well, the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy
The law of the jungle and the sea are your only teachers
In the smoke of the twilight on a milk-white steed
Michelangelo indeed could’ve carved out your features
Resting in the fields, far from the turbulent space
Half asleep near the stars with a small dog licking your face (I always thought this was small, dark look on your face, but what do I know)

- Old Testament + street smarts + the law of the sea.

Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune
Bird fly high by the light of the moon
Oh, oh, oh, Jokerman

Well, the rifleman’s stalking the sick and the lame
Preacherman seeks the same, who’ll get there first is uncertain
Nightsticks and water cannons, tear gas, padlocks
Molotov cocktails and rocks behind every curtain
False-hearted judges dying in the webs that they spin
Only a matter of time ’til night comes steppin’ in

- Governments, religions and wars fought in the name of the people. It's no surprise on this verse when you listen and think about the headlines of the time. The Intifadah, the rise of modern Islamist terrorist attacks, etc. It's no surprise that the image on the "Infidels" back cover and on the "Jokerman" single features Dylan with Jerusalem in the background.

Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune
Bird fly high by the light of the moon
Oh, oh, oh, Jokerman

It’s a shadowy world, skies are slippery grey
A woman just gave birth to a prince today and dressed him in scarlet
He’ll put the priest in his pocket, put the blade to the heat
Take the motherless children off the street
And place them at the feet of a harlot
Oh, Jokerman, you know what he wants
Oh, Jokerman, you don’t show any response

- Another admixture of Jesus and something darker and more worldly. Not like I really understand though...

John Wesley Harding

He's a wanted man,
Armed too. But poor folks love him,
And he’s innocent.

The real John Wesley Hardin (no "g" at the end) was a lawbreaker in many ways. Murder, horse theft, helping prisoners escape, and so on... but Dylan's character is more of a Robin Hood who is wanted for crimes that he did not commit. "John Wesley Harding" is the first song of the album of the same name that Dylan released in 1967, and sets the tone for the rest of the album, with its meanderings through the Old West, Appalachia and other dark, lonely and highly allegorical corners of the old, rural, wild America. Dylan's Harding is the idealized lawbreaker in that he's just, prefers easy solutions to sticky situations, and earns the respect of the people even as he lives outside the law. It's no surprise that some Dylan scholars have noted that JWH is a lot like the Hebrew "Yahweh."

1. Friend to poor
2. Gun in "every" hand
3. He was a thief
4. He didn't hurt anyone
5. In Cheney County
6. Had his lady with him
7. There was a confrontation, but everything got straightened out
8. He was always ready to help people
9. Police sent notices of him across the telegraph
10. No charge stuck
11. Nobody could catch him
12. He never made a foolish move

Johnny Todd

Johnny Todd went to sea.
He left his girl, and she
Married someone else.

Here's an old ballad for the boys that took a notion to go wandering and leave their girls behind. I'm guessing that Dylan heard it from the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. He recorded it with the Band during the 1967 Basement Tapes sessions, and you can hear it on volume 11 of the Bootleg Series.

Johnny Todd he took a notion 
For to cross the ocean wide. 
There he left his true love a-weeping 
Waiting by the Liverpool tide.

For a week she wept full sorely, 
Tore her hair and wrung her hands 
Till she met with another sailor 
Walking on the Liverpool sands.

O fair maid why are you weeping 
For your Johnny gone to sea? 
If you'll wed with me tomorrow 
I will kind and constant be.

I will buy you sheets and blankets, 
I'll buy you a wedding ring. 
You shall have a gilded cradle 
For to rock you baby in.

Johnny Todd came home from sailing, 
Far across the ocean wide, 
There he found that his fair and false one 
Was another sailor's bride.

So, all you lads who go a-sailing 
For to fight the foreign foe. 
Never leave your true love like Johnny, 
Marry her before you go! 

The British TV series "Z-Cars" used the music as its theme.

John Brown

John Brown goes to war
And gets himself blown to bits.
How proud is Mom now?

"John Brown" is a grim tale penned by Dylan in 1963 about a boy who makes his mama proud by enlisting and going to war. She doesn't know quite what to do when he comes home disfigured by injury, but clutching all those medals that she was hoping that he would win. The song appeared at the time under the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt on a Broadside Ballads release. Its first appearance on a Dylan album was on 1995's "MTV Unplugged." Further versions have surfaced on commercial releases since then.

1. John Brown goes to war in his nice new uniform.
2. Mom says, go win lots of medals.
3. Mom tells everyone her son's going to be a war hero.
4. She gets letters from the front.
5. Letters stop.
6. She get a letter saying Johnny's coming home. She goes to the train station.
7. She can't find him because she doesn't recognize him.
8. Face shot up, hand blown off, metal brace on his waist. He can't talk properly.
9. What have they done to you?
10. You didn't see what I saw.
11. What am I doing in this war? I tried to kill my enemy, but he looked just like me.
12. As soon as I realized that this was bullshit, I was hit by a cannonball and went blind.
13. He gives his medals to his mother and walks away.


Mobster Joe Gallo
Shoots up the town, goes to jail,
Gets out, gets murdered.

I'm not a "Joey" fan, though not because it's historically inaccurate. Nobody asked Dylan to write a musical documentary of Crazy Joe Gallo. I just can't accept the elegiac tone that Dylan and co-writer Jacques Levy apply to the story. I like mob movies and I'm a fan of "The Sopranos," and I can understand how killers, drug dealers, loan sharks and other such people have emotions, feelings, families and so on just liek we do, and that bad things happen to them too. But to devote 11 minutes of sympathy to someone like Joe Gallo seems like a stretch. You can find the song on "Desire," which Dylan released in 1976.

1. Born in Red hook. An outsider.
2. Nicknamed "crazy."
3. Gamblers. Poor things, always caught between the mob and the police.
4. Why did they want to kill the poor guy?
5. People say they killed their rivals, but that's a lie. When someone tried to kill Joey's brother Larry, he went out for revenge.
6. Mob war. The Gallos take hostages.
7. Someone says, let's kill the hostages. Joey says no. We need "peace and quiet." This is after he starts a war.
8. Police arrest him. He gets 5-10 in Attica.
9. He reads Nietzsche (and William Reich, say the lyrics, though I don't recall hearing it that way)
10. He gets solitary.
11. He gets along with black men, a sign of his moral superiority and innocence because they all know whta it feels like to be slaves
12. He gets out in 1971. He lost weight. He wants his old job back.
13. He stops carrying guns because he's around kids too much. He robs his rival's clubhouse.
14. He gets shot while at dinner at a clam bar. He dies on the streets of Little Italy.
15. His sister and mother cry. His friend Frankie refuses to accept that he's dead. His father's limousine goes back to the grave one last time.
16. The sun sets and Brooklyn mourns for Joey. God will punish his killers.

Come. On.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Jim Jones

Criminal Jim Jones
Gets sent to Australia.
He plots his revenge.

Another of the great songs of the sea that Bob Dylan has performed is "Jim Jones," the tale of a convict sent to Botany Bay, Australia. It appears on the 1992 album "Good As I Been to You," and despite the grim tale, it sparkles like the sea with images of tall ships, pirates and the bushrangers and prisoners. The song was published in 1907.

Come and listen for a moment, lads,
And hear me tell my tale.
How across the sea from England
I was condemned to sail.
Now the jury found me guilty,
Then says the judge, says he,
"Oh, for life, Jim Jones, I'm sending you
Across the stormy sea.
But take a tip before you ship
To join the iron gang.
Don't get too gay in Botany Bay,
Or else you'll surely hang.
Or else you'll surely hang," says he.
"And after that, Jim Jones,
It's high above on the gallows tree
The crows will pick your bones."

And our ship was high upon the sea
Then pirates came along,
But the soldiers on our convict ship
Were full five hundred strong.
For they opened fire and somehow drove
That pirate ship away.
But I'd rather have joined that pirate ship
Tan gone to Botany Bay.
With the storms ragin' round us,
And the winds a-blowin' gale,
I'd rather have drowned in misery
Than gone to New South Wales.

Now it's day and night and the irons clang,
And like poor galley slaves
We toil and toil, and when we die
Must fill dishonored graves,
And it's by and by I'll slip my chains,
Well, into the bush I'll go
And I'll join the bravest rankers there,
Jack Donohue and co.
And some dark night, when everything
Is silent in the town
I'll shoot those tyrants one and all,
I'll gun the flogger down.
Oh, I'll give the land a little shock,
Remember what I say,
And they'll yet regret they've sent Jim Jones
In chains to Botany Bay.