Saturday, October 07, 2006

'Highway 61 Revisited' Revisted

A guy I know sent me a message about my previous post, in which he mentioned that there are significant differences between button board and a piece of drywall with holes drilled into it. He also pointed out that I didn't mention anything about expanded metal lath or blue board. I'd never even heard of blue board before, but it sounds like what I should be using. I guess I could go out and buy some, since I still haven't gotten around to patching the hole, but I'll probably stick with the piece of scrap drywall.

A few months ago, the New Yorker reviewed a book that was basically just a collection of Bob Dylan interviews. It seemed like they didn't review the book as much as they reviewed Bob Dylan, but that isn't atypical for the New Yorker. For example, a month or two earlier, in their review of a Timothy Leary biography, they critiqued Leary much more than the book about him.

I didn't really care in either case, since I wasn't particularly interested in reading either book, but I did learn a few interesting facts from the reviews. For example, did you know that Timothy Leary was a shameless self-promoter who, whatever he was doing, whether he was advocating hallucinogenic drugs or the colonization of other planets, was really just trying desperately to attract attention to himself?

Actually, that probably wasn't in the review -- that's just something I already knew. As a matter of fact, that's something just about everybody who was alive in the '60s and '70s should know. But I did learn that despite what the mass media reported in the late '60s, Leary was not a Harvard professor at the time he started taking LSD. He was just a young post-doc who was asked by a friend of his to lecture at Harvard. And since he never held a teaching position after he was fired from Harvard, he was never actually a professor at any university. (File this under "Interesting Facts about Dead Egotistical Buffoons.")

As for Dylan, if you've ever read an interview of him, you know that they're often just as impenetrable as his lyrics. I guess Dylan didn't like talking to strangers much, especially about his history or his songs. So whenever someone asked him about his past, he'd just make something up. And when someone asked him what the lyrics to a particular song meant, he'd just give some enigmatic response that would leave the reviewer even more confused. So there really aren't a lot of reasons to read a Bob Dylan interview -- not if you're interested in actually learning anything about the man or his music.

But what I learned from the New Yorker review is that when it came to discussing the sound of his songs (as opposed to their meanings), Dylan was anything but mysterious. He could go on and on about the sound. After reading the review, I got the feeling that the words were there just to help give some sound to the song -- not to convey any particular message.

Of course, that might be a little hard to take for all the people who regard Dylan as some kind of poet or prophet, but it makes a lot of sense if you think about it a little.

As it happens, I've been listening to Bob Dylan's iconic Highway 61 Revisited for the last couple of weeks in my car, which means I've probably heard the album about 15 or 20 times in the last two weeks. And it occurred to me that even though there's a big difference in the sound and tone and mood from one song to another, the difference in lyrics isn't always that great.

The album ends with Desolation Row, and the mood of this song is so melancholy that if you were depressed enough, it might make you want to commit suicide. But let's look at some of the lyrics:

Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood
With his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago
With his friend, a jealous monk
He looked so immaculately frightful
As he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes
And reciting the alphabet
Now you would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row

Okay, now let's consider the eponymous song Highway 61 Revisited, the tone of which is uplifting and comically absurd. Again, let's examine some of the lyrics:

Now the fifth daughter on the twelfth night
Told the first father that things weren't right
My complexion she said is much too white
He said come here and step into the light he says hmm you're right
Let me tell the second mother this has been done
But the second mother was with the seventh son
And they were both out on Highway 61

So we've got two songs with completely different moods, but I contend that the lyrics in Desolation Row are inherently no sadder than those of Highway 61 Revisited. As a matter of fact, if Dylan had given Desolation Row an upbeat mood and Highway 61 Revisited a downcast mood, it would have seemed perfectly reasonable, and the world would have been none the wiser.

But while I'm on the subject of Dylan, when the album Blood on the Tracks was released, I remember someone I knew saying that one of the things that made that album so different from his earlier albums is that for each song, the title of the song is repeated in the chorus, so you could actually figure out the name of the song just by listening to it. That's pretty much what most songwriters have always done, but Dylan used to make a habit of giving his songs titles that had absolutely nothing to do with the lyrics, like Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35, Ballad of a Thin Man, From a Buick 6, and Temporary Like Achilles.

I just checked a few early Dylan albums, and I'd say that about half the songs have the title somewhere in the lyrics and half of them don't. In contrast, all except one of the songs in Blood on the Tracks have the title in the lyrics. But even the one song that doesn't -- Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts -- repeats the individual names Lily, Rosemary and The Jack of Hearts several times in the lyrics.

So what's my point? I guess it's that some guy I knew thirty years ago was right, more or less. But why am I making this point? I don't know. I don't have a reason. My mind just wandered off in a particular direction and this is where it ended up.

But the truth is, my mind didn't end up there. It has since moved on to other thoughts. For example, now I'm thinking of other things, such as mixing up some plaster and troweling it into a hole.