- “Summer Days”, Love And Theft
- “Song To Woody”, Bob Dylan
- “Man In The Long Black Coat”, Oh Mercy
- “Girl From The North Country”, Real Live
- “Where Is The One”, Triplicate
- “Tangled Up In Blue”, The Bootleg Series, Vols 1-3
- “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll”, Rolling Thunder Revue
- “Outlaw Blues”, Bringing It All Back Home
- “Neighbourhood Bully”, Infidels
- “All the Way”, Fallen Angels
- “You’re A Big Girl Now”, Hard Rain
Coming back to a randomly generated Bob Dylan album after delving deeply into his religious output is like going back out into the world after finishing school. Having a much deeper understanding of Dylan’s religion makes it easier to get his overall worldview, even outside religion specifically.
“Summer Days” is a fun song to open on. I get a real kick out of the 12 bar blues, because there’s this idea that the joy of formula is finding an individual spin on the same old ideas, and that argument is most convincing to me with the blues, because the chord progression sounds awesome no matter how it’s played. I particularly like how Dylan barely restricts himself to the structure – my favourite line is “She said you can’t repeat the past, I said ‘You can’t? Whaddya mean you can’t, of course you can!”, because the melody threatens to break into musical gibberish before righting itself. There’s only two ways to open up an album: either a definitive statement of purpose (e.g. “American Idiot”) or some raw joyful meaninglessness (which the Beatles were always good at – this is akin to “Drive My Car” opening Rubber Soul).
I did not recognise “Song To Woody” from the ending of the Mad Men episode “Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency”, although to be fair the connection is a little esoteric; the sentimentality of the guitar perfectly suits Don bringing together Sally and Gene, but the lyrics don’t immediately jump out as relevant. I suppose the connection is that baby Gene hasn’t yet defined who he is yet, and this song is Dylan’s first definition of himself. Something that fascinates me about Dylan is that in the first few years of his career, he was a giant prick, but the ways in which he was a prick were informed by the same things that would make him charming to me down the road. There’s a line in the Wikipedia page on Bob Dylan (album) that strikes me as marvelously arrogant: “I said no [to doing two takes]. I can’t see myself singing the same song twice in a row. That’s terrible.” That ability to instantly see what he does and does not want to do and forge on despite criticism would inform so many highs in his career, it just happens to look stupid and short-sighted in this moment. Similarly, Dylan would go on to work different fragments and techniques from everything he heard almost immediately, and it’s just here that it’s basically plagiarism because he hasn’t yet built up a big enough database of techniques.
This particular song gets away with plagiarism because it’s half a love letter to Woody Guthrie, and therefore half a declaration that Dylan will act as the reincarnation of Guthrie (Dylan’s voice made a lot more sense to me when I finally got around to listening to Guthrie’s music). For a guy who came off as brash and arrogant a lot of the time, there’s something strangely humble about Dylan in this song, presenting himself as a student awed that he gets to follow the master’s path. That sense of sincerity drives the song, makes it into something more than a cheap rip-off, and comes through completely uncompromised.
I was very excited when the Random Number God picked “Man In The Long Black Coat” and over the moon when it turned out to live up to the badassery of the title. It’s a ridiculously manly song that is just barely one notch below being silly. It’s like, there’s Ronnie Gardocki’s invisible masculinity, then there’s Johnny Cash’s visible but not cartoonish masculinity, then there’s the cartoonish, self-aware awesome manliness of Sin City, then there’s Zack Snyder’s abject toxic stupidity. This song fits somewhere between Johnny Cash and Sin City. Something that continues to delight me is how Dylan can always sound playful without being off-putting; I try singing these lyrics and I sound like a try-hard buffoon.
“Girl From The North Country” was a rare moment of me getting what people meant when they call Dylan a bad guitarist and harmonica player – this performance sounds ragged in a really bad way, like he’s struggling to remember how it goes. At least, it did until I turned the song up above my normal comfort zone on my earphones, at which point I heard him carefully controlling the energy of the song, and I found myself enjoying the emotion of the song more. I wonder if his notoriously inconsistent live performances sound better the closer you get to him. This song is another swooningly romantic one, the narrator wistfully remembering someone he loved.
I’ve had trouble connecting to Dylan’s crooner phase, and this seems like the best point to try and put together the things I’ve picked up. I know that Dylan never does anything he’s not 100% committed to. I know that he seemed to find some kind of peace in the decade before getting into the crooner stuff. It’s outside the context of Dylan, but I know that Frank Sinatra is equal to Johnny Cash on that masculinity scale I made – visibly authoritarian even he’s not actually running shit at the moment, completely in control of himself and his environment (even if the reality fell short of the legend). Perhaps Dylan sees himself as a relic in every sense of the term, an eternal reminder of fundamental truths that people can ignore or study at their leisure, and he saw a connection between his complete sense of peace and the casual swagger of Sinatra and the other crooners. “Where Is The One” should be a complete undermining of that, with the narrator looking for his true love, but Dylan sings the title line like it’s a rhetorical question. He’s accepted that the search will last forever, and that he’ll keep searching anyway.
The original version of “Tangled Up In Blue” is the purest moment of joy I’ve come across in Dylan’s discography – not the most triumphant or the most ecstatic, but definitely the one that feels like the buzz of contentment, so the downbeat nature of this performance has been bouncing around my head. It’s really weird hearing Dylan deliver the lines with a sneer and yet still sound as playful as he does on, like, “The Man In The Long Black Coat”. I was shocked when I looked it up and found this was an alternate take from the exact same sessions as the more famous version I’m familiar with. Perhaps what Dylan learned between “Song For Woody” and this is that different takes can capture different energies depending on how you feel, and that means something more to him than how polished the recording is.
The Rolling Thunder Revue owns so hard. It’s amazing how no song gets away from the ‘apocalyptic hoedown’ aesthetic (as beloved Soluter silverwheel described it) while finding so many totally different nuances on that concept. I checked out “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll” ages ago, and decided I didn’t much care for it because the song had this awkward stop-start feel to it. But here, played in this style and in this venue, it works much better for me; the shift from verse to refrain is like a slow build of rage. Regular Solute readers may recall that “She never done nothin’ to William Zanzinger” is almost designed to piss me off, and I can’t help but resent Dylan telling me what I can and cannot get angry about, but I’m too overjoyed by another wing of his worldview opening up to care. Dylan is carefully drawing a distinction between evil and injustice with this song; evil is things like murder or racial oppression, and there’s nothing that can be done to stop that from happening, so there’s no point trying to stop it from happening. Injustice is when evil goes unpunished, and that’s something Dylan does get angry about. It’s a very Shieldian morality, and makes Dylan seem much older than he is.
“Outlaw Blues” is a fun, bluesy, totally calorie-free lump of sugar. It’s another playful bunch of riffing, like “I Shall Be Free”, but with less musical or lyrical interest despite having a full band – as if he had lost the need to wildly experiment with sounds and combinations of concepts, and unlike “Silvio” it really doesn’t feel like he’s trying very hard. This isn’t even a bad thing, just a thing.
I know how ridiculous this sounds, but I’m always shocked by how Eighties Dylan’s Eighties output sounds. Give him an acoustic guitar and a harmonica like he exclusively had in the early Sixties, and he could have recorded it then or he could have recorded it yesterday. The music he’s recorded since the Nineties sounds outright alien, like it was buried underground a thousand years ago and only recently dug back up. “Neighbourhood Bully” could fit comfortably between “Hold The Line” and “Two Tickets To Paradise”. silverwheel has said Dylan was creatively lost in the Eighties, and I wonder if he was simply taking what he saw around him and was bashing it together in the hopes of sparking inspiration. I tend to enjoy Dylan’s Eighties stuff, and I really like this song, which obviously speaks to my “two guitar solos, a badass riff, and cool sounding but barely comprehensible lyrics” taste in rock, but I think it also speaks to Dylan’s craft, especially at this point in this career. I’ve seen people argue that Dylan is a mediocre guitarist and terrible harmonica player, which I think is only true for the first three or four years; by the time he went electric, he was consistently competent, and at least from here I would characterise his performances as highly polished, which even contributes to the alienness of his later work.
My first interpretation of the song was that it was about – and I’m genuinely sorry for bringing up the Unwashed Orange – Donald Trump. Not literally, of course, but a lot of the language felt like it fit, a sarcastic expression of an egotistical bully with a persecution complex lashing out in the face of criticism. So you can imagine my embarrassment when I discovered it’s a spirited defense of Israel. What happened is that I read the sarcasm the exact wrong way – “Neighborhood Bully” is the sarcastic part, and most of the lyrics sounded like hyperbole (“He took sickness and disease/And turned it into health” sounds like the kind of boast Trump would make). In some ways, my interpretation came from me being trapped into a being of 2019, bringing our meanings to the words Dylan smashes together. But there’s also something counterintuitive to me in having the title be the sarcastic part; my intuitive read is that the title phrase is what the protagonist actually is and the rest of the lyrics are his point of view, but Dylan made the whole thing some other person’s interpretation of him.
“All The Way” brings back Dylan’s crooner persona, and unlike “Where Is The One”, it’s explicit advice imparted from the man who came down from the mountain.
One of the positive effects of giving myself up to randomness is that I get a unique emotional journey, where I have my own associations with individual songs, and silverwheel has remarked that I tend to react more positively to Live At Budokan and Hard Rain than he does – like most Dylan fans, he found them a bit of a letdown after the Rolling Thunder Revue. I think maybe Dylan was trying as hard as possible to draw out the emotion of the songs, actively straining his voice and building bands that injected as much power into the songs as he could, and I can see how in the context of both an album following “Rolling Thunder” and as a whole album of songs like that, it would be an exhausting attempt to recapture the magic. But the way I’m taking it, it’s as if Dylan has gone beyond being casually honest and beyond exposing his honest emotion and into ripping his heart out and throwing it onto the stage. He’s trying to express an emotion so intense that he has to actively strain himself to properly do so, and the songs have a recurring pattern of building up into sections so intense that Dylan and his band have to stop to collect themselves before ploughing on again. That works very well here, to the point that this is my favourite song from this little era. I tend to react well to stories about people awed by their loved ones, and this blows that emotion up to melodramatic levels. I’m particularly moved by one variation on the title lyric. “You’re a big girl now” bothers me because it implies a level of superiority to ‘her’ – my friendships are with my equals. “You’re a big girl all the way” resonates extremely strongly with those friendships.