Friday, May 15, 2009

Dylan Stops Time

I let Bob Dylan back into my life this winter. I do this every couple of years. He’s never fully banished, but in an off-time, I might listen to the occasional record (say, one a week), maybe put on a live recording every month or so, and focus my energy elsewhere – Neil Young, perhaps, or Sam Cooke, or Bill Evans, or the Hold Steady, or A Tribute to Jack Johnson.

But then something happens: a new outtake is found mouldering in an obscure Columbia vault somewhere, or Dylan puts a new song on a soundtrack, or the particular spiral of a falling leaf strikes me, or I get fascinated by the shape of a snowflake, or I read an out-of-context quote somewhere about the sound of the second acoustic guitar on “Desolation Row” and I’m off. Three out of four records I play are Dylan’s. Eight out of ten songs. I read or re-read books, articles and essays. I construct playlists with nothing but alternate takes of released songs. I revise my Infidels running order. I evangelize on the holy beauty of “Shelter from the Storm” and its relationship to “Up to Me.” I compare the three different studio takes of “Idiot Wind” (the test pressing, the one on The Bootleg Series Volume Two, and the one released on Blood on the Tracks). I pretend that there is some value in the time I spend considering how the post-2000 live arrangement of “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” fundamentally alters not just the mood of the song but its very meaning.

In any case, here’s what I’m obsessed with today (and if I knew how to embed an audioclip, I would, so feel free to step up and help out): the way that Dylan played and sang “Mr. Tambourine Man” in 1966. Now, I love the slow, scarred 1995 examples (the pathos of a line like “My weariness amazes me” sung in the ravaged but unbeaten mid-90s voice is undeniable), and the more stately arrangements of late 2000, but these versions from 1966 are on an entirely different planet. Part of it is the warmth of the voice: it’s that thick Blonde on Blonde voice as it works its way through the cascading images, that voice already so different than the one that sang it upon the song’s completion two years earlier. And part of it is the suspend-time, suspend-disbelief harmonica solo, particularly the final one, as Dylan whirls around two or three motifs, circles them again and again before finally settling on a piercing, insistent, and ex-ten-ded high note, holding it, holding it, holding it before finally releasing. Part of it is the knowledge that that final, breathless crash into the song’s conclusion would be followed by a short break and then the Sonic Death Monkey wallop of Dylan and the Hawks crashing at terminal velocity into “Tell Me Mama” and the rest of the electric set. But mostly, and in particular, it’s this: in the final verse, Dylan sings, “Let me forget about today until tomorrow.”

(And it’s not just that line that’s killing me, although it is a quintessential bit of Dylan writing: an impossibility pushed across as a wish, its seeming positive nature undercut by the knowledge that even if we could arrive at tomorrow today, every today we’ve ever lived is now yesterday, is now behind us, and living for the sake of the past, like living for the sake of the future, takes us, if nothing else, firmly outside of today. It’s annihilation. It’s the desire to escape today and the promise that tomorrow, he will focus on today, but some part of him knowing (as it must know) that, of course, by tomorrow, today is the past. And, perfectly, the preceding lines are, “With all memory and fate / driven deep beneath the waves”).

In this version, on this night, on this tour, Dylan sings it as, “Let me forget about two-mah… row.” He inserts this pause, this space, this emptiness, this possibility in between the second and third syllables of “tomorrow.” It stops time. And that hesitation, that pause, that breath, sends me back to the song over and over (and reminds me of Paul Williams’ insistence that the performance of a song is, in fact, the song).

It’s that pause. It’s all of the tension created as Dylan makes you wait. And makes you wait. It’s what he does with the harmonica a minute later, but here it’s his voice. Worlds are created in that pause. And then, fully, thickly, wonderfully, he finishes it. Resolves the tension. Puts time into motion again. Takes us out of suspended animation (a state of bliss, perhaps, but also a living death) and sets us free.

It’s a good thing.

You can hear it, by the way, on The Bootleg Series Volume Four: Live 1966. Which you should own already: the concert contained within, truly, is Some Important Shit.

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