Thursday, October 05, 2006

Modern Times

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Bob Dylan: then and now.


Modern Times

A friend gave me a CD a couple of weeks ago on the occasion of my sixteenth annual thirty-ninth birthday*. I had to try to conceal my disappointment when I unwrapped it. Bob Dylan... great. Truth be told I have never liked Bob Dylan very much. Years ago I formed an opinion of him as a nancy-pants pretty boy folk rocker who wrote annoying songs he couldn't be bothered to sing, instead standing at the microphone and alternately shouting, as if the whole world is deaf, and sawing away at his damned harmonica. For thirty years I have pretty much gone with that impression. Every now and then I would hear someone else sing one of his songs and I would like it well enough but that did little to change my impression of Dylan as a performer. Friends would try to tell me that he was somehow a great poet but the lyrics they quoted always sounded like the unpaid-for angst of a city-boy folk singer holding forth on hard times he had only heard about third hand.

So, imagine my surprise when I popped Modern Times in the player in my car and was hooked on it after about twenty seconds of the first song. The album varies a bit in style -- mostly blues and western but with Hawaiian, folk and crooner elements thrown in -- and all the elements in the mix are rooted in the thirties and forties. Aside from that heavy-retro aspect the other thing that all the various numbers have in common is that none of them sound like the Bob Dylan that I don't like. It's a fabulous album and it has been the soundtrack of my daily commute ever since.

I have hesitated in writing this review while I worried that despite the fact that I liked the album musically there might be some sort of a gotcha in the lyrics that would make a full endorsement embarrassing -- Bob Dylan is often referred to as the voice of my generation and my generation often seems to consist mostly of idiots. So I have (quite enjoyably) listened to the album several times and have read the lyrics on the web and tracked down some of the obscure references and am finally able to say that the songs are pretty much what they appear to be -- songs about love and loss, anger, disillusionment and the hope of redemption.

This is not to say that the album doesn't touch on politically-charged current events. It does so repeatedly. The flooding in New Orleans is never mentioned but is alluded to continually in lines that link trouble to rising water, most particularly in The Levee's Gonna Break
If it keep on rainin', the levee gonna break
If it keep on rainin', the levee gonna break
Everybody saying this is a day only the Lord could make

Well, I worked on the levee, Mama, both night and day
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 good as new,
I paid my time and now I'm as good as new.
They can't take me back unless I want 'em to

If it keep on rainin', the levee gonna break
If it keep on rainin', the levee gonna break
Some of these people gonna strip you of all they can take
...
I picked you up from the gutter and this is the thanks I get
I picked you up from the gutter and this is the thanks I get
You say you want me to quit ya, I told ya, 'No, not just yet.'
...
When I'm with you, I forget I was ever blue
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
Put on your cat clothes, mama, put on your evening dress
Few more years of hard work, then there'll be a 1,000 years of happiness
...
With all of the songs on this album, and at the risk of buying into the idea that Dylan is some sort of a poet, I find it interesting to try to figure out who the first- and second- person references might be. That is, as who is Dylan singing and to whom? One possibility with Levee's Gonna Break is that when he says "you" he is talking to the city of New Orleans. This makes the line "You say you want me to quit ya, I told ya, 'No, not just yet'" make a sort of sense.

Another song where it is interesting to try to figure out the players is Working Man's Blues which starts like this --
There's an evenin' haze settlin' over town
Starlight by the edge of the creek
The buyin' power of the proletariat's gone down
Money's gettin' shallow and weak
Well, the place I love best is a sweet memory
It's a new path that we trod
They say low wages are a reality
If we want to compete abroad

My cruel weapons have been put on the shelf
Come sit down on my knee
You are dearer to me than myself
As you yourself can see
While I'm listening to the steel rails hum
Got both eyes tight shut
Just sitting here trying to keep the hunger from
Creeping it's way into my gut

Chorus:
Meet me at the bottom, don't lag behind
Bring me my boots and shoes
You can hang back or fight your best on the frontline
Sing a little bit of these workingman's blues...
I have seen the lyrics for Working Man's Blues criticized, both as being clumsy and as being excessively political but I find neither to be true. My take on it is that it is a song of disillusion and loss about politics not a politicized song about something else. Remember that the album draws from sources in the thirties and forties and take another look at the first verse. By his odd choice of words Dylan is clearly identifying his first-person voice as belonging to the old-fashioned left (of which he himself is undoubtedly still a member). Bearing this in mind the song becomes a sad love song to the American heartland from "the God that Failed" -- a suitor who has not just been rejected, but has been nearly forgotten.
I can see for myself that the sun is sinking
How I wish you were here to see
Tell me now, am I wrong in thinking
That you have forgotten me?
So, why do I like this album but dislike Dylan's earlier work? I think it has something to do with his shift to the blues. Dylan's "protest" songs of earlier years had an element of sanctimony about them: He found himself surrounded by wickedness and error that he, and his enlightened circle, did not share, and this wickedness and error could be corrected if only consciousness was appropriately raised and the people were motivated to act. With the passing of more years living in his own skin while he struggled with drugs, alcohol and dissipation, Dylan seems to have more of the attitude of a blues man that while he is surrounded by sons of bitches it an inescapable part of the human condition, and that he is quite an SOB himself. Consider this from the edgy song Ain't Talkin':
They say prayer has the power to heal
So pray from the mother.
In the human heart an evil spirit can dwell.
I am a-tryin' to love my neighbor and do good unto others
But oh, mother, things ain't going well.

Ain't talkin', just walkin'
I'll burn that bridge before you can cross.
Heart burnin', still yearnin',
There'll be no mercy for you once you've lost.
So, despite my expectations I find that I like Bob Dylan's new album a lot. Who'd a'thunk it? Thanks, Calvin, for buying me a CD I didn't want.



* About my age:I'm not that old. You are off by one year: check your math.

1 comment:

Calvin said...

Hey no problem. I of course bought it for you because I knew the CD _is_ of your generation at least in spirit, because I figured you'd like the the retro-30s and 40's vibe.

But I had no idea you had such a dislike for Dylan. If I'd a knowm I'd a forced Malcolm Holcombe on you instead. :-)