“Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”

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Since we’re on the subject of non-album Dylan singles from 1965, there’s also “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”. Released at the end of November 1965 as a single, although not faring nearly as well as “Like A Rolling Stone” or “Positively 4th Street”, this is almost a forgotten Dylan single like “Mixed Up Confusion” – his website indicates that he played it only once in concert.

Musically, the best part of the song is the drumming. The backing band is The Hawks (later to be known as The Band), and it sounds a bit more like a precursor to Blonde on Blonde than a song for Highway 61. Apparently they did twenty-two takes of this one trying to get it right. Here’s an alternate version (the drumming is slightly different, as is the guitar):

The whole thing is a bit forgettable, really. An inessential single. Nick Hornby wrote about it in his book 31 Songs. While saying that he isn’t a Dylan fan (though he owns twenty of his CDs), he notes that “Can You Please” is “a minor Dylan track, one of his snarly (and less than poetic) put-downs, but it is from my favourite period (electric, with that crisp, clean organ sound), and I haven’t heard it a million times times before, so it sneaks its way on to car tapes now”. I can’t really improve on that.

Jimi Hendrix also recorded this for the BBC, before he’d make “All Along the Watchtower” his very own. It’s worth a listen.

“Positively 4th Street”

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One of my all-time favourite songs, not just favourite Dylan songs, is “Positively 4th Street”. Recorded in the sessions for Highway 61 Revisited, the song was not included on that album, but was released as a stand-alone single in September 1965 (with “From a Buick 6” as the b-side). Dylan never placed it on an album, though it appears on Greatest Hits and Biograph.

All my life I took this to be a sort of generalized fuck you song. One of the most bitter things ever to crack the top ten of the pop charts, I always assumed that it was about someone specifically, but to me it never mattered who it was. It was not until December of last year that I think I twigged to the fact that it was actually about the Greenwich Village folk scene. A review of Inside Llewyn Davis in the Boston Globe concluded by mentioning this particular interpretation of the song, and it all suddenly made sense: how could I have been so blind?

Certainly in late July 1965, when the song was recorded, Dylan had had it with the folkies. His UK tour had come to an end, and he had played the fateful Newport electric show – his connections with the Greenwich Village scene were being severed. 4th Street in New York was the home of Geerde’s Folk City, and the cover of Freewheelin’ was photographed on that street. The specificity of the title, and the time of its recording, make the target of the attacks clear.

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It has been suggested, of course, that the target of Dylan’s ire was even more specific. Izzy Young, who ran the Folklore Centre, is rumoured to have been the “You” of the song, as has been Irwin Silber of Sing Out!. Both were quite critical of Dylan’s development as an artist, the turn away from tradition, and the decision to go electric. Dylan began singing it live in October 1965, logically because it was a hit single by then, but it also served as an announcement of his new intentions.

To me, it doesn’t matter who it is about. It’s just such a great song to be sung at the top of your lungs when you’re feeling bitter. It’s the original song about haters. The lyrics are fantastic:

And now I know you’re dissatisfied

With your position and your place

Don’t you understand

It’s not my problem

But beyond the lyrics, it’s Dylan’s tone and phrasing that are so powerful. It’s the way that he punches the final short phrase of every verse, spitting out the venom every time. The song is just such an unrelenting bellowing of anger and spite, and it never lets up. The final verse:

Yes, I wish that for just one time

You could stand inside my shoes

You’d know what a drag it is

To see you

Well, I’d hate for someone to be singing that about me. Although, maybe a few people already have….

Here’s Lucinda Williams. She’s bitter too!

Dont Look Back

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“Give the anarchist a cigarette”, Dylan says as he drives away from his concert at The Royal Albert Hall in London on May 9, 1965. Basking in the post-performance glow of the penultimate show of his eight concert tour of England, Dylan is told by his manager, Albert Grossman, that the UK papers have taken to calling him an anarchist, because the protest singer is unable to offer any solutions to the problems he enumerates. Of course the papers don’t know it yet, but Dylan is no longer a folk singer. When D. A. Pennebaker’s cameras caught this conversation in the documentary Dont Look Back, Dylan would perform only one last folk concert, the next night in the same London venue. After that his next stop would be an electric set at Newport, and then a tour with The Hawks, rock star style.

It’s been almost thirty years since I’ve watched Dont Look Back. Parts of it I remembered so clearly I barely needed to see them again. Other parts made sense to me now in a way that they never would have when I was a teenager (the moment when the reporter from BBC Africa Service talks to him about Madhouse on Castle Street is only sensible because I recently watched what’s left of that BBC drama). It is still a tremendous film – the template for so very many other rock documentaries – and a very real glimpse into the private life of a certain version of Bob Dylan.

Most striking to me on this watching was Dylan’s treatment of the press. I’ve been listening to “Ballad of a Thin Man” in various versions all day, so it was definitely on my mind tonight. The initial press conferences when Dylan arrives in the UK is really oppressive. The questions are just so inane that you can immediately understand why Dylan would respond by simply toying with the reporters. His verbal sparring with Terry Ellis is a really uncomfortable scene, with a bullying side of Dylan emerging that is unpleasant to watch (that Ellis would go on to found Chrysalis Records and become one of the most important figures in British rock during the 1970s is one of those great things that maybe you only learn by reading Wikipedia after you finish watching a film like this one; it made me go back and rewatch the scene all over again). The final interview, with Horace Freeland Judson of Time Magazine is just brutal to watch. You can see how fed up Dylan has become, how bitter and uncompromising. Not surprising at all that only a few months later he would write one of the nastiest and orneriest songs ever recorded.

The other moments of great interest, of course, is the way that Dylan deals with other singers in his orbit. His relationship with Joan Baez was souring by the time of this tour, and it ended in the midst of it. She walks out the door one night while he’s typing, and while we see her one more time in the film, that was that. We never see Dylan react to her departure – or perhaps that’s all the reaction that he gave to her leaving. Hard to know. Dylan’s questioning of Alan Price (“Why’d you leave The Animals?”) comes out of nowhere, and seems to put Price in his place when Dylan tires of toying with Ellis. Finally, the scenes with Donovan. Well, amazing. Dylan’s quest to find him and learn about him, Baez’s knowing laughter when the press accuses Donovan of having betrayed his fans (“He’s only been around for three months”, she’s told), Dylan’s appreciation of Donovan in the hotel room, and then his complete and utter mastery of the room when he takes Donovan’s guitar and plays “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. The hierarchies of stardom have never seemed more clear.

For years when I was teaching Film Studies regularly I thought of teaching a course on rock documentaries: Madonna: Truth of Dare. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. Shut Up and Sing. Spinal Tap. Dig! Needless to say, Dont Look Back is the one that unlocks them all. Everything else owes such a debt to Pennebaker that it can be hard to even see the film for how great it is. The beautiful flashback when the reporter asks Dylan how he got started and Pennebaker cuts to Dylan in 1963 singing “Only A Pawn in Their Game” in Greenwood, Mississippi. Less than two years had passed, and Dylan was a completely different singer – Pennebaker shows that so effortlessly. It really is masterful.

Today, the film is best known for its relentlessly ripped off opening, the proto-music video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, even though that’s maybe the most gimmicky part of the whole thing. It’s too bad, because there is so very much more in there, even if we never do learn who threw the glass out on the street….

Desolation Row

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You learn all kinds of strange things doing a project like this one. For instance, today at lunch I learned that “Desolation Row” is funny. I certainly never knew that before. I always considered it the dark, brooding, beating heart at the end of Highway 61 Revisited – a typical Dylan apocalypse straight out of a Dutch painting.

To the earliest crowds hearing the song, however, it was a laugh riot.

Dylan started playing “Desolation Row” as part of his tour of the United States with The Hawks in the fall of 1965. On that tour, he would open with seven or eight songs sung alone and acoustic (almost all from his more recent albums – the protest stuff, even “Blowin’ In the Wind”, was gone at this point), and then after intermission he would return to the stage with The Hawks and play most of Highway 61 Revisited. “Desolation Row”, having been done acoustic on the album, was played that way live (an electric version of the song was recorded for Highway 61 and can be found on Bootleg Series 7 – it’s not a whole lot different, but in some ways it may be better than the album version).

I only have two bootlegs with “Desolation Row” from 1965. The first is a poor quality recording (likely from the crowd) of his show at the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in New York. The crowd laughs – loud and long – after virtually every single line of the song. This crowd thinks that this song is hilarious. “They’re selling postcards of the hanging…” and they laugh. I always thought that was a pretty sombre image, myself, but what do I know?

The far better recording I have is of his Hollywood Bowl concert in August. This is a high quality version, and just before “Desolation Row” Dylan tells the audience he can’t hear them (presumably in response to a song request). Even here, though, from a soundboard recording, you can hear the audience laughing – though not as clearly.

It seems to me that Dylan’s obscure non-sequiturs – which comprise such a huge percentage of the lyrics on Highway 61 put the crowd at a loss. How to take this protest singer, whose language had once been so clear and direct, now that he has embarked into this uncharted new territory? Dylan’s audiences would be negotiating that right through his UK tour of 1966. I guess I knew that they found him frustrating – I just never knew that they found him funny.

 

Highway 61 Revisited

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Rolling Stone magazine named it only the fourth greatest album of all time, even though they were named (in part) after its first track. Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited is that seminal piece – the combination of bluesy rock and roll with the fiercely poetic lyrics that would redefine the face of rock music. To me it unquestionably Dylan’s best album, and it is the one I have listened to the most times, by a wide margin.

I can remember being in the ninth or tenth grade and coming home from school for lunch and listening to Highway 61 day after day after day. The length of the album plus the walk to and from school was precisely the length of my break. When I’d hear the opening phrases of “Desolation Row” (“They’re selling postcards of the hanging….”), I knew it was time to pack up and get ready to head back to class. For probably weeks on end I listened to this album day and night.

And why not? There’s not a single bad song on it, and quite a few (“Like A Rolling Stone”; “Ballad of a Thin Man”; “Queen Jane Approximately”, and the aforementioned “Desolation Row”) are strong contenders for ‘best thing he ever did’. Dylan recorded “Like A Rolling Stone” in mid-June 1965 (it was released as a single, with “Chimes of Freedom” the next month), and then Dylan got booed off the stage at Newport. The electric material that he played there was mostly from Bringing It All Back Home, but the experience seemed to have steeled his determination. Four days after Newport he recorded “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry”, “Tombstone Blues”, and, most importantly, his defiant blow-off to the folk scene: “Positively 4th Street” (left off the album, and about which more in a day or two).

Over the course of only four recording sessions Dylan would bring his masterpiece together. Many of the songs are rough and ragged, the result of constant tinkering and experimentation. There is a howling rage to a song like “Ballad of a Thin Man”, in which Dylan is writing protest music – by his protests are personal: he doesn’t like the way that he himself is being treated now. This is an album that very much announces the birth of a brand new version of Bob Dylan, one that is beholden to no one.

Up to this point, Dylan had mostly ended his albums with songs of farewell, and this one is no exception. “Desolation Row”, at almost eleven minutes in length, is the sole acoustic song on the album. A classic anti-folk song on an album of rock material, it is a nightmarish parody of the songwriting that Dylan had seemingly grown tired of. Late in the song Dylan writes:

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune

The Titanic sails at dawn

And everybody’s shouting

‘Which side are you on?’

It seems a pretty clear indictment of the politics and the commitments of the folk scene that he was placing in his rear view mirror: what purpose is there to take sides on a sinking ship? Dylan knew his own ship wasn’t sinking – it was a rocketship, and this album would head him towards the stratosphere.

I’m still not tired of this album – I’ve been looking forward to this week, and I’ve listened to it every day so far.

Oh, by the way, the three albums that Rolling Stone placed ahead of this one: Revolver by The Beatles, Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys, and Sgt. Pepper’s by The Beatles. I’m not going to bother to argue that. But I will note that Dylan has eleven albums on the top 500 list, one more than each of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. And, on a separate but related list, the number one song. But more on that another day.

My copy of “Highway 61 Revisited” has these same pops in it. Played it too much!

Dylan News Bits

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Yeah, of course I have a Google news alert set. How could I not?

First, possibly best but possibly worst, an album of covers is coming out in March: Bob Dylan in the 80s. Could be an interesting project. I haven’t quite figured out how to deal with covers during this project yet, but I will likely buy the album, if only for the liner notes by Jonathan Lethem.

Second, apparently Dylan will be in a SuperBowl ad for Chrysler. I can’t deal with 2014 Dylan until the last week of December, so I may not watch it. He has also licensed “I Want You” to Chobani, which I have just learned is a yogurt company. Given the reality of simultaneous substitution in Canada, there’s an excellent chance that the Chobani ad won’t even air up here. Chrysler will likely buy time in Canada though. The Chobani ad is in the linked article, but I’m not watching it until December.

Finally, I got a notification that my Bob Dylan Complete Album Collection has shipped. Hooray. Just six weeks after I ordered it. Should be here next week, maybe Friday if I’m lucky.

Oh, and BobDylan.com has gone weird – the page opens with an ad for a pre-order of the album that came out last August. That’s just strange.

Pete Seeger, 1919 – 2014

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It’s probably apt that I was thinking about Pete Seeger last night (he shows up in Murray Lerner’s documentary about Bob Dylan, The Other Side of the Mirror, which I watched). In my post last night I called him the “greatest living American”, and then I woke up to learn the sad news that that appellation was no longer fitting.

Pete Seeger definitely shaped my life and attitudes much more than Dylan did. Dylan, for instance, never led me to try my hand at guitar, but I own seven banjos and that’s entirely because of Pete Seeger. I bought my first banjo, which is now in my office at the University, in 1992. Actually, my parents bought it for me as a Christmas gift – I just picked it out at the Ottawa Folklore Centre (when it was still on Bronson). When I went into the store to pick one out the guy asked me what kind of banjo I wanted to play. Not being aware that there were multiple banjo styles I think I said “Ummmm”. He asked if I wanted to play bluegrass like Earl Scruggs (which he then demonstrated) or claw hammer like Pete Seeger (which he could also play). “Seeger,” I assured him, “I want to play how Pete Seeger does”. So I bought the banjo and Pete Seeger’s How to Play the Five String Banjo book and tried to teach myself how to play. Anyone who has ever tried to self-learn the claw hammer strum in the pre-YouTube days will know how impossible that is. It took me almost twenty years before I found Barry Luft, and he taught me how to actually play the instrument properly.

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Pete Seeger made me want to play the banjo because he made the banjo look like the coolest instrument in the world. “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It To Surrender” he had written on his banjo. How unbelievably cool was that? Seeger seemed like a man who done it all and seen it all and come through it all with a sense of optimism about the human spirit that was nearly unparalleled. He was saintly, but in all the best ways.

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I never met Pete Seeger, though I saw him play live a number of times. I visited Beacon, NY once, but he wasn’t protesting that day. I have a friend who owns an island in the Hudson River not far from where Seeger lived. Seeger dedicated a few decades of his life to helping the cause of cleaning up the Hudson. My friend, who is a bluegrass banjo player (but don’t hate him for it), wrote a letter to Seeger, asking permission to rename his little island Seeger Island, explaining that they were both banjo players, and that my friend felt he should be honoured for his contributions to saving the river. Seeger wrote him back, of course, and, naturally, declined. I read that letter, in which he explains that nothing would make less sense to him. He offered two suggestions: name the island with a word from one of the tribes who originally owned that land, or, failing that, invite a class full of local school children to the island and let them decide on the name. It was the most Pete Seeger-ish thing I have ever read.

Reading Twitter and FaceBook this morning I was struck by how many Seegers there were. There are the people who remember him from “Little Boxes”, or his children’s songs. There are people posting links to his work with The Weavers. Friends on the left are posting “Which Side Are You On?” and “Talking Union”, while others are posting his anti-war and civil rights material. Some remember him only because Bruce Springsteen remembered him, and that’s fine too. For me it’s the Seeger of American Industrial Ballads that I like best, but, really, I love them all. I love that when he appeared on The Smothers Brothers show, putting an end to fifteen years of blacklisting, he was so uncompromising and simply picked up the protest where he’d never left it off.

If you’re only somewhat familiar with Seeger, do yourself a favour and watch the 2007 documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song. It will fill you in on what a great life the man lived, and what a powerfully positive attitude he had. The story of the time he converted his own assassin to his way of thinking is one of the most remarkable stories you will ever hear, a story full of the hope that music can change minds.