Bob Dylan Countdown #184: “Corrina, Corrina”

The credits on the The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan say that this song was arranged and adapted by Bob, but it’s fair enough to argue that this is an original composition. After all, there are a ton of different versions of the song in circulation, and none of them appear to bear too much resemblance to Dylan’s version. That’s why I’m allowing it on this list, which is meant only for songs that Dylan wrote or co-wrote.

There is a pleasant, lilting feel to the proceedings here that show Dylan’s ability to take on lighter material. Anyone who expected him to be only a dour protest singer or lovesick balladeer, two roles he played extensively on Freewheelin’, might have been surprised by the touch he displays on “Corrina, Corrina”. He even drops in a supple falsetto just to show off a bit. It’s also one of the first examples of how he could interpret a song with a band alongside him rather than with his acoustic guitar as sole accompaniment.

One little digression here:  Although much of my time has been spent the last few weeks writing or researching for this project, I’ve been trying, little by little, to get through the 4-CD compilation of Dylan covers just released on behalf of Amnesty International. I haven’t made it through the whole thing yet. 

The funny thing is that, if you had put those 70 songs before me in Dylan’s versions as a playlist, I could listen to it all day. As for the covers, it’s a bit of a slog to get through. A lot of artists are either laying on the performances too thick or missing the point of the songs by a pretty wide margin. It’s for a good cause though, so there’s no sense in complaining too much.

Anyway, one of the covers I did hear and like was Pete Townshend’s take on “Corrina, Corrina.” He doesn’t try to do too much with it, which would have a mistake. I also like his choice of material. I suspect that a lot of young up-and-comers are drawn to the wordiest stuff, trying to show they’re up to it when the vast majority of them aren’t. Townshend has nothing to prove, and his effortlessness is engaging. And that effortlessness, after all, is what Dylan managed all those years ago on the original.


Bob Dylan Countdown #185: “Forgetful Heart”

The fact that there are only three spots between them on the list should tell everyone that I feel like “Beyond Here Lies Nothin'” and “Forgetful Heart,” two of the finest numbers off Together Through Life, are very much cut from the same cloth. There’s a banjo in the latter, so that sets it apart a bit, and it also features a set of lyrics that is just a wee bit stronger.

Notice how those lyrics make a casual shift throughout the song. At the start of the action, the personification of the heart gives the words, at least on paper, an almost playful feel that’s in stark contrast to the music. Indeed, it’s the kind of device you might expect from a Cole Porter standard and not a pitch-black blues.

But as the song progresses, the words shade ever so slightly darker to match the music. Desperation seeps in, and memories of good times are replaced with pain. It all sets it up for a couplet that goes down as one of Dylan’s all-time closers:  “The door has closed forevermore/If indeed there ever was a door.”

It’s as if the narrator is sinking deeper and deeper into the abyss the more that he contemplates his situation. His heart may be forgetful, but his mind’s recall is unfortunately sharp, locking all the slights and wounds irrevocably in place.

Bob Dylan Countdown #186: “North Country Blues”

Bob Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota is in the midst of the Iron Range, a unique area of our country teeming with iron mines. Coal mines may dominate the mining conversation in the United States, but iron mines come with similar sets of problems (dangerous conditions for workers, cheaper competition from overseas, low wages, etc.)

It only makes sense then that Dylan would be drawn to this particular occupation when he chose to write his own Woody Guthrie-type ode to put-upon workers and include it on The Times They Are A-Changin’. But Bob takes a somewhat unconventional approach by telling the story from the perspective of a woman with a family full of miners.

He could have easily just given a laundry list of all the hardships miners endure, but, by personalizing it, he makes it seem much less like medicine and more deeply affecting. And by choosing a woman as the centerpiece for the tale, he emphasizes the way that an entire community is affected by these mines, not just the miners themselves. It’s like an anti-war song from the perspective of the widows.

Dylan sings the song almost dispassionately, as if all the emotion has been drained from this poor woman who has lost her brother and father to the mine’s dangers and her husband to the mine’s sudden lack of usefulness. Her final, stoic realization that her children will eventually join the list of those who have departed is almost too much sadness to contemplate.

Dylan obviously witnessed this sadness firsthand growing up. That he captures the essence of this harrowing job without making it seem like a lecture is a testament to his skill and compassion.


Bob Dylan Countdown #187: “Can’t Wait”

Dylan really knocks these slow blues out of the park. The slower tempo of this penultimate track on Time Out Of Mind gives him time to wring unexpected nuances out of the lyrics, adding emphasis unpredictably from line to line. It’s an underrated part of his repertoire, one that is often overlooked by those who think of him as just a songwriter.

In actuality, his performances are as much of the songwriting process as anything else. The lyrics on the page for “Can’t Wait” might not seem like much when simply read aloud. When sung by Dylan, they plumb depths of profundity that you’d need sonar to locate.

As for those lyrics, there are a few twists that keep everybody on their toes. Check out the way Bob fires out a grabber of a line like “it’s mighty funny, the end of time has just begun.” Before going too far into that rabbit hole though, he pulls it back with an elemental, powerful follow-up line:  “Oh, honey, after all these years you’re still the one.” Little touches like this transport what could be an otherwise straightforward blues exercise.

Notice the way the recording puts Dylan in the middle of instrumental accompaniment which starts out relatively spare. It’s subtle, but little by little, the instruments start to encroach upon him, squeezing him as the tension ratchets up. Drummers Jim Keltner and Brian Blade really turn the screws.

Still, that indomitable voice persists, spitting out his lines of unbearable longing and unfulfilled desire. It’s a killer performance, one that raises the level of an already impressive song.


Bob Dylan Countdown #188: “Beyond Here Lies Nothin'”

An ominous, minor-key tango highlighted by the efforts of guitarist Mike Campbell and accordionist David Hidalgo, “Beyond Here Lies Nothin'” is an excellent showcase for Bob Dylan’s latest studio band. Even with extended instrumental sections not usually found in a Dylan song, there is no excess flab to be found on the recording. It’s no wonder the song makes an effective soundtrack weapon. (Oh, those pesky vampires!)

In the midst of this fierce musical setting, Bob sings a tale of love at the edge of a metaphorical cliff. The world at their perimeter is menacing and unforgiving, but the singer and his beloved are holding on tight in the shadow of the threats. It’s not the newest story in the book, but it’s well-told nonetheless. I particularly like the lines “I’m movin’ after midnight/Down boulevards of broken cars.” Very evocative.

Since it kicks off Together Through Life, “Beyond Here Lies Nothin'” promises a beefy musical onslaught in the album to come. The album doesn’t always deliver on that promise, sometimes faltering on the balance between riffing and ruminating. That balance is struck nicely by the opening track though. It is rare that a backing band can match Dylan’s charisma on the mike, but this crew rises to that challenge and then some.


Bob Dylan Countdown #189: “Lenny Bruce”

“I rode with him in a taxi once/Only for a mile and a half, seemed like it took a couple of months.” That might be the most telling line in the entirety of this off-kilter tribute to the iconoclastic comedian, because Bob Dylan writes it as Bob Dylan. He actually did share a cab with Bruce once. For a guy who masks exact autobiographical details in all but a couple of his hundreds of songs, what it does mean that Dylan lets down the curtain and reveals something in a song that he might otherwise save for an interview?

My guess is that he identified with Bruce a lot. Note the way that he phrases these lines:  “He was an outlaw, that’s for sure/More of an outlaw than you ever were.” He could have said “we” instead of “you”. Instead, he keeps himself outside of the group of people he’s putting opposite Bruce, as the gaping cultural divide stretches between them. Maybe Dylan even realizes that Bruce’s fate could have befallen him as well. The comedian died in 1966, the same year as Dylan’s motorcycle accident. There but for the grace of your deity of choice goes Bob.

“Lenny Bruce” the song probably isn’t a perfect match to Lenny Bruce the man, at least not in the eyes of those who witnessed him perform or were around when he carried on his battles with the lawover the alleged obscenity in his routines. It’s even awkward at times in its attempts at praise. Still, Dylan makes telling points in the way he points out what Bruce was not. He never won a Golden Globe, which means he wasn’t what anyone would consider “safe” entertainment. He wasn’t out murdering babies, and yet he was hounded by the law like the most heinous fugitive.

The issue of factual truth in Dylan’s songwriting about real people (Hurricane Carter, William Zantzinger, Joey Gallo) often comes into play with critics, but I find the issue to be a non-starter. He’s not a biographer, nor is he narrating a documentary. I don’t think he needs to be beholden to any standard of historical accuracy. That there are people who may take his words for fact without checking up on them isn’t really his burden.

Ultimately, Dylan has the right to write a story for Bruce that offers the comic some semblance of grace in death. That he chooses that to grant such a benevolent tribute may say as much about the writer as it does about the subject.

Bob Dylan Countdown #190: “Born In Time”

It was the recording on Tell-Tale Signs that helped me to find this song again. I suspect that many fans can relate to the fact that Under The Red Sky had been collecting a bit of dust in my CD collection, especially compared to some other Dylan warhorses on constant play. What surprised me was that, when I did go back to the original version, it sounded better than I expected it to be. It certainly stands out on Red Sky, an otherwise pedestrian, for Dylan at least, collection of songs.

One of the things that I do love about Red Sky though is the crazy, Celebrity Apprentice-style roster of artists guesting on these songs. On “Born In Time”, you’ve got the Dawg himself, Randy Jackson, on bass, Bruce Hornsby tickling the ivories, and David Crosby singing back-up. That sounds like a dinner party one might have in a fever dream, but this ad hoc group does well enough on this delicate number.

What lends “Born In Time” an air of poignancy is the sense that these two people have just missed each other, their chance for true happiness having slipped away despite their best intentions, the world getting in their way. The song is just a tad erratic, with some great Dylan expressions (“record breaking heat”) sharing the same air space with some clunky metaphors (“the foggy web of destiny.”) 

Still, I’m a sucker for the understated elegance of the song, and the spectre of a happy ending arriving at its end is a nice touch. This is a sneaky little gem. I’m glad that I was reintroduced to it.