I must admit, it’s taken awhile, but I’ve become a huge Bob Dylan fan.
Oh, I know – it’s not really a profound statement, given the millions of Bob-ites around the globe. But, in thinking of a ‘left-turn’ column idea, I thought we could go back into songwriting, specifically lyrics, and briefly look at all things Bob.
Some can memorize, and muse, greatly, on the Bobster – I’ve had an old habit of never bothering to learn lyrics unless I’m learning the song for a gig. But, with great lyricists, I think it’s time for me to change up my batting order, and learn me some Bob.
Why? For songwriters, storytellers, poets, artists, and deep thinkers of our existential plane, Dylan should be in Music 101.
Can’t get past Bob? Oh, I know one big reason (and I’ve compiled a personal survey over the years): “It’s his voice. I can’t stand his voice”
Well, me, too – when I was about 7 years old.
1965, and “Like A Rolling Stone” hits the airwaves, throwing off the entire “Good Guy” AM radio format of fast talking platter DJ’s, used to the creamy, dreamy white bread hits of the time ( yes, let’s throw the Beatles in there, too, for awhile). I listened to the Voice on that song, and thought in my little brain,” That guy sounds like he’s sick or something. That’s terrible!”
But, I never heard anything like it, compared to what was on my transistor radio at that point. So, I filed that bit o’ history away until further use…..
Ya see, if you get past the obvious – the voice, the one-take, semi – sloppy song arrangements at times – the obvious becomes the ‘obvious’: the man can tell some STORIES.
He’s pretty good at it – really (moans and groans of either ‘I’ve known this for decades’, or ‘oh brother’ elicit from the worldwide throngs…..).
This past winter break, I was ice skating with my son, wife, and my family down in Austin, on an upper level of the original Whole Foods Market, when I heard “Forever Young” blast thru the little portable Fender p.a. system that was used for music and announcements at the side of the rink. At that point, I thought,”I really should write a column on Bob, it could be fun, but what angle? It’s not like Bob hasn’t been praised, damned, dissected, or dissed before.”
Having a vocation (and a low paying one at that, at this point) of songwriting, I thought I could throw my two cents in on Dylan the lyricist. It’s my two cents, so what the hell – everybody else has been thrown twice as much money on the subject before my little treatise’.
Anyway, this version of “Forever Young” is the more soulful, gospel – tinged version of the two that Bob did with the Band on the “Planet Waves” album. Which brings us to the first point in Bob Songs 101 – how to re-arrange a song by changing the feel and tempo. Personally, I love the second Band/Bob version – soulful, and deep. Merely by putting a gospel feel to the song, I think the lyrics reflect and cut deeper, slower, and with more intent.
(Blues, soul, country, folk, Tin Pan Alley, pre-bebop jazz, and most pure forms of American, and indigenous music in other countries seem to hold up better traditionally, and in the long run – Dylan has touched on all these forms. So, combined with his unique sense of vision and lyricism, Bob’s music seems to transcend generations. Thankfully, “Mandy” will probably sift its way thru some drunken tie-on-forehead karaoke nights at the local pizza n’ beer joint, whereas “Like A Rolling Stone” will be something your grandkids – and their kids – will be singing. Although given the mood and the night, I might hop it on “Mandy” after a few Shiners…..)
May you grow up to be righteous,
May you grow up to be true,
May you always know the truth,
And see the lights surrounding you
That’s the start of the second verse of “Forever Young” – look at the words: they’re like a traditional Irish toast, or blessing. Dylan wishes good fortune on the bestowed throughout the song – it’s about as goodwill of a song lyric that Bob delivers ever. The entire song is this heartfelt blessing. Poetry, if done correctly, and set to music correctly, can be powerful in its delivery and message. This is good poetry - perhaps a passing on of the wisdom of the sage, seer, and shaman, to a young charge – hoping not for wealth and fame, but for beatitudes beyond the superficial. One can see the sage in a profound ceremony, or even at a park bench, giving wisdom to the younger stead – huge imagery here.
May your heart always be joyful,
May your song always be sung,
May you stay forever young
Musically, the entire song, not unlike other Dylan numbers, is very straightforward – along with the universal lyrical sentiment, probably much of it’s appeal is derived from the straight chord forms and arrangement. Dylan – not a fan of studio trickery, overdubbing, and more of a ‘one-take’ guy – gives the Band leeway to inject what they did best: bring all forms of Americana style music to our general populace awareness. Thus, we get one of the more underrated, heart drenched numbers in the Dylan canon……..
Now, from deep sentiment to sneering put-down…..
Like “A Love Supreme” by John Coltrane, “Axis: Bold As Love” by Jimi Hendrix, or the back catalogs from Joni Mitchell and Lucinda Williams, I now keep coming back to “Highway 61 Revisited” by Bob Dylan as a collection of songs to be enjoyed, soaked in, and studied. I’m not sure, almost 45 years ago as of this writing, if the KIOA “Good Guy” format in Des Moines was running the entire song of “Like A Rolling Stone” in it’s long form (close to damn near 6 minutes - 6 minutes and 9 seconds to be exact – unheard of then, and even now, amongst the snappy, poppy, Cheese Whiz on the airwaves….), it was a revelation. When that opening snare shot hit, then the sanctified Al Kooper - driven organ, with bass, drums, guitars, and harmonica following suit into the world of the Mystery Tramp, Miss Lonely, and sneering jugglers and clowns, it was another world entirely back then. More of a ‘what’s-the-big-deal’ moment now, Dylan going ‘electric’ was a slap in the face amongst folk purists back then. If 50 Cent or Jay - Z went country, well, you kids will kinda get in the ballpark of an idea of a controversy…….
Which brings me to “Queen Jane Approximately”…..
Legend has it that this number was a toss-off/put down to folk queen Joan Baez, a Dylan lover/duet partner/seminal historical music/protest figure from the 1960’s. Whomever it was directed towards (Dylan has been quoted saying that Queen Jane “was a man”- go figure; another Dylanism.), it covers similar ground, subject-wise, as “Like A Rolling Stone”, although Bob does leave the protagonist an out, inviting him/her to come see Bob if he/she wants to get away from the superficiality of his/her existence.
It is Bob at his most scathing – look at the second verse:
Now when all of the flower ladies want back what they have lent you,
And the smell of their roses does not remain,
And all of your children start to resent you,
Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?
Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?
Pretty much a person with a lack of depth, substance, or ethics in decline – at least Bob is giving this human a leg up.
Basically, Dylan is saying when all of the false resources that have propped you up for so long, fall like a house of cards, then please, come on back, and I can show you reality.
My take on Bob’s early writing is that the folk music boom lined up perfectly as a catalyst to give Bob the platform as a new kind of lyric writer for pop music – when such things as irony, self – actualization, critical analysis, and existential awareness were even considered part of the fabric of topics to write about in pop music. I’m sorry, but as an example, think the depth and breadth of music of Britney Spears, and this was the radio landscape, pre – Bob, in the early 1960’s. Along with the looming, creeping, social and political nature of the time, Bob helped to usher in a new awareness – like, it’s o.k. to talk about the war machine rather than shimmy, shimmy koko bop, shimmy, shimmy, bop……..
Suggestions for songwriters that wish to explore Dylan further? Well, I’m partial to different Bob periods – from “Highway 61 Revisited” up to “Street Legal” shows a wealth of great material. Good Bob albums to start with are “Planet Waves” with the Band, “New Morning” (highly underrated), the 1975 Rolling Thunder Tour from the “Bootleg” series, “The Basement Tapes with the Band, “Blonde On Blonde”,of course.
I know, I will skip a ton of stuff here, but forgive me, Bob – o- lytes. Then, for ‘older’ Bob – “Time Out Of Mind” and “Love And Theft” spring forth immediately.
If you’re a writer of folk, country, roots rock, Americana, and blues, you cannot go wrong with taking a dip in the waters of Bob – seriously. Even a short swim will produce a new appreciation for one of this century’s best songwriters.
Thanks for taking the short ride with me to Bobville – until then, may your hands always be busy, and your feet always be swift!