Bob Dylan Countdown #101: “Absolutely Sweet Marie”

It is just one of 14 songs on the colossal Blonde On Blonde, and its lighthearted tone might tempt you to dismiss it. That would be a mistake. “Absolutely Sweet Marie” contains one of Dylan’s, and rock music’s, all-time most-quoted lines:  “To live outside the law you must be honest.” It has a classic backhanded compliment:  “Well anybody can be like me, obviously/But, then again, not everybody can be like you, fortunately.” And it yields a killer euphemism for masturbation:  “I’m just sitting her beating on my trumpet.”

Not bad for album filler, huh? Dylan was operating at such a high level of proficiency at this point, the brilliance practically oozing out of his pores, that the extraordinary was commonplace. There are so many great songs from this point in time that individual tracks like this can be taken for granted, at least until you take a close listen to it and it stuns you all over again.

The band stomps through this song with a purpose. Al Kooper’s brazen hook is the nexus from which all the other elements emanate. Kenny Buttrey’s double-timing drumming doesn’t allow you to wallow too long in Bob’s wordplay; you have to keep sprinting along just to catch up. And I love how Dylan sings the lyrics with that detached playfulness that made him the coolest man on the planet circa 1966, then follows it up by tearing into his harmonica solo like the Tasmanian Devil.

The lyrics tell a tale of frustration, emotional, sexual, even postal, as the narrator tries to no avail to corral a wild, unreliable woman. Dylan’s imagery is so vivid that it engages practically every one of the senses in describing the surreality left in this girl’s wake. I personally love the phrase “ruins of your balcony”; it’s both evocatively exaggerated and deadly accurate, just one of many parts of the lyrics that meet that standard.

Sweet Marie makes it through the entire song without being tracked down by the narrator. After all, if she were easily caught, she wouldn’t be so wanted in the first place. The only thing absolute about her is her elusiveness, and yet we as listeners are right in the same boat with the poor sap conducting his futile search, exasperated and captivated all at once.

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Bob Dylan Countdown #102: “Make You Feel My Love”

If I had to pick two musicians who irked me the most back in 1997, it would have been Billy Joel and Garth Brooks. Both covered “Make You Feel My Love” around that time. Should I feel some ambivalence about the song because of that fact? To what end can a song be blamed for the artists who cover it?

First, some background. When I was a kid, I loved Billy Joel. I played the heck out of Innocent Man on my tiny cassette player when I was 13. I grew out of that somewhat as I hit college, felt like some of the music was derivative and a lot of the lyrics weren’t on the same level as the artists I began to admire (Dylan chief among them.) Not too long after his release of “Make You Feel My Love,” I saw Joel give a lecture at a college, and he came off as annoyingly self-deprecating to a degree that it seemed disingenuous, I would have preferred him to puff out his chest and say, “Yeah, that’s right, I’ve made a gajillion dollars writing unoriginal songs that will be irresistible to girls at the jukebox too drunk to know any better and guys looking to dedicate love songs with a nasty edge to their significant others. Suck it!” After that night, I couldn’t deal with Joel.

Brooks was an even bigger offender. I am a professed Beatlemaniac, and I was a humorless one back then, which is the most dangerous kind. I was personally offended that Garth made it his goal in life to break the Beatles sales records, using all kinds of special editions and the like to get people to pay over and over for the same songs. It provided me with perverse pleasure when his whole Chris Gaines alter-ego project flopped like an Edsel filled with New Coke.

Ah, but I was so much older then, and, well, if you’re reading this blog, you know the rest. I try not to judge so glibly anymore, and my opinions have, I’d like to think, matured. I can give Joel credit for being an expert melodicist even if his lyrics will never be my cup of tea; I even felt sorry for him when some clown wrote a popular internet piece a few years back deriding Billy as the worst artist ever in what was clearly an attention-grab by this writer who wouldn’t know music if it crapped in his ear. As for Brooks, well, his music still does nothing for me, but at least the dude stayed retired, which is something that few retired celebrities actually do.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, back to “Make You Feel My Love.” Even in those years when I couldn’t stand Brooks or Joel, I never held it against the song. Dylan’s own performance is beyond charming, that harmless growl of a voice wrapping around those honeydripper lyrics. How can anyone resist it when he sings, “You ain’t see nothing like me yet?”

The point is that Bob Dylan need not always write Bob Dylan songs. He has afforded himself the privilege to write adult contemporary that doesn’t try to solve the world’s problems or elucidate some great human mystery. He has earned the prerogative to simply write about a man professing the lengths to which he will go to prove his love to a woman. In the case of “Make You Feel My Love,” he does this very well, as well or better than others who make their living writing such songs, and the overall effect is as powerful or even more so than many of Dylan’s weightier songs.

And so, I’ve come all the way around on this subject. Once upon on time, I condemned Garth Brooks and Billy Joel for tainting a Bob Dylan song by their associations with it. Now, I say bully for them for having such good taste.

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Bob Dylan Countdown #103: “License To Kill”

Dylan didn’t quite get the recording of this song right on Infidels. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the music itself; Robbie Shakespeare’s stuttering bass line is the highlight. The problem is that the laid-back feel of the recording doesn’t jibe with the unsparing lyrics. You can sense the song’s true potential in the performance by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers during the 30th Anniversary tribute concert to Dylan. Better yet, look up the video of Bob himself performing it on David Letterman in 1984, when it was given a more raucous arrangement and he sang it with some “Like A Rolling Stone”-style sneer.

Still, even with these drawbacks, that original recording still merits this pretty impressive spot on the list on the strength of those incendiary lyrics alone, as Dylan basically condemns all of humankind for its folly. He argues that we devour natural resources, resources which include all the people who are sucked into the lie, in the name of narcissism and ill-advised manifest destiny.

Bob quickly lobs the first grenade when he sings in the opening verse, “Oh, man has invented his doom/First step was touching the moon.” As someone who has always been skeptical of the need for millions upon millions of dollars for the space program when there would seem to be more practical uses for that money on terra firma, I’d like to send Bob a telepathic high-five on that one.

He then follows that up by delineating how man is bred to believe that conquest by violence is the natural order of things. This Everyman that represents pretty much the whole human race in Dylan’s scenario can’t help himself:  “All he believes are his eyes/And his eyes keep telling him lies.” The final end is always the same:  “Then they bury him with stars/Sell his body like they do use cars.”

The only one who is aware of this grand deception is the oracle-like woman who appears in each chorus, asking the same question:  “She say who gonna take away his license to kill?” She never gets an answer, but “License To Kill” aims to provoke us as listeners to provide her with one before it’s too late.

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Bob Dylan Countdown #104: “Dirge”

Some people say that hate is not the opposite of love; it’s indifference. I think about that saying when listening to “Dirge.” I don’t know that you can spit forth that kind of negative emotion about somebody unless you have fiercely loved that person in the past. Passionate love and untethered vitriol are sometimes separated by the flimsiest of barriers, and Dylan eloquently and mercilessly elucidates that phenomenon here.

It is a case where the music is perfectly matched to the tone of the lyric. Dylan plays piano on the track, all rumbling, ominous chords falling on top of each other. Robbie Robertson’s acoustic guitar picks out notes high on the musical spectrum, contrasting the piano sound but mirroring the anguished emotion. Notably, those are the only two instruments played on the track, leaving lots of open spaces for Bob to howl his lyrics as if the wounds are still wide open.

“I hate myself for loving you,” is the first you thing you hear over the piano and guitar, and it gets worse from there. That line is crucial, which is why it’s repeated in the song, since it shows the narrator’s own weakness as well as the disgust he has developed for this other person. He has reached an abyss from which return is uncertain, “That hollow place where martyrs weep and angels play with sin.” He makes several references to the fact that this person arrived in his life when he was at a personal low point, thereby making him more vulnerable to the pain that she inflicts.

The narrator is not free from blame here, for he seems to suggest that his own self-destructive streak led him to the girl:  “We stared into each other’s eyes ’til one of us would break/No use to apologize, what diff’rence would it make?” This is a relationship in which the two parties could never have coexisted without completely obliterating each other, so combustible is their chemistry.

Yet Dylan’s protagonist seems to have made it out alive, if a bit worse for wear:  “I paid the price for solitude, but at least I’m out of debt, ” he sings, and then closes the matter with some measly optimism in the final line:  “I hate myself for loving you, but I should get over that.”

What’s fascinating about “Dirge” is that it appears on the same album as “Wedding Song,” in which the same kind of powerful emotion is expressed, only it’s all positive. The ironic thing is that “Wedding Song” comes after “Dirge” on Planet Waves. A more cynical sequencer might have put the hate song right after the love song, suggesting that one inevitably leads to the other. The narrator of “Dirge” most certainly would have done it that way.

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Bob Dylan Countdown #105: “If You Belonged To Me”

The general consensus is that the second Traveling Wliburys album, Volume 3 of course, was not up to the standards of the first. I wouldn’t go that far, but I would agree that it’s not as much fun. The light-hearted songs that are there (“She’s My Baby” and “Wilbury Twist”) are a tad forced, but there is some compensation in the form of more songs with welcome hints of  depth.

Dylan’s “If You Belonged To Me” is the standout among those more serious songs. Bob takes to task a girl who makes all the wrong choices, but still leaves the door open for her return. The song is tough and tender in all the right places.

This is another example of a song in which Dylan takes just a few lines to complete a character sketch. In this case, it’s the first two lines:  “You’re waltzing ’round the room tonight in someone else’s clothes/You’re always coming out of things smelling like a rose.” We know what this girl is about immediately, how spoiled she is, how her good luck is really tied to the compromises she makes with shady men. You could say she’s a close cousin to the girl in “She Belongs To Me,” only told from the point of view of a narrator far more jaded.

Her meanness is displayed in almost comical fashion:  “You say let’s go to the rodeo to see some cowboy fall.” But there is no joke when the narrator lets her know what her male friend is up to:  “The guy you’re with is a ruthless pimp, everybody knows/Every cent he takes from you goes straight up his nose.” His offers to rescue her are likely falling on deaf ears, because it seems like the damage ahs already been done.

All of this rides upon a luscious bed of Wilburys’ guitars and Jim Keltner’s rollicking beat. George Harrison clearly loved the song; he borrowed the arrangement and chord sequence pretty much whole-hog for “Any Road,” the kickoff song from Brainwashed,  his posthumously released final album. “If You Belonged To Me” got lost a bit due to its inclusion on a supposedly inferior album. That’s a shame, because Dylan is in ripping form with the Wilburys acting as one of the most overqualified backing bands you’ll ever hear.

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Bob Dylan Countdown #106: “Emotionally Yours”

I know people will get on this song for sounding too ’80’s, but my formative years were spent in that decade, so I don’t consider that necessarily such a bad thing. Sure, “Emotionally Yours” could have done with a few less synth horns and the production is a bit overblown, but that was the style. Dylan’s lovely piano work at the beginning is what leaves the most lasting impact anyway.

Honestly, “Emotionally Yours” sounds like it could have been the love theme to an 80’s action flick, maybe even a duet with Dylan joined by Kim Carnes or somebody like that. And, again, there’s no insult in that statement at all. My point is mainly that the craftsmanship is top-notch on this track, as if Bob was showing all the hacks that he could handle the big-hearted ballad with aplomb.

There is also real, unmitigated sweetness in this song. No irony, no obfuscation. Bob has his heart on his sleeve and he doesn’t care who knows about it. I guess people expect him to be super-dynamic all the time, but that’s just silliness. Sometimes music can get by on heartfelt sentiment alone, and “Emotionally Yours” has that in spades.

Is there a better way to show your complete and utter devotion and depth of feeling than by telling someone, “I will always be emotionally yours?” I think not. Is it sappy? Damn right it is. But it’s sap Dylan-style, and that’s good enough for an unrepentant 80’s apologist like me.

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Bob Dylan Countdown #107: “Mama, You Been On My Mind”

The residue of a doomed affair has a way of lingering long after the goodbyes have been said and the tears have been cried. It’s that residue that serves as the impetus for songs such as this one, in which Dylan plays the role of a wistful guy ruminating on the whereabouts and well-being of a former flame.

One thing this guy makes sure to do is to assure the girl that he’s not trying to get back into her life. Maybe it’s himself that he needs to convince of this. Or maybe he doesn’t want the girl to be freaked out by his admittance that he still thinks of her. He’s just being honest about the memories, and anybody who’s been there knows that the memories sneak up at the darndest occasions without any provocation, sometimes spurred on even by something as innocent as an optical illusion (“Perhaps it’s the color of the sun cut flat.”)

The narrator also hints at the personal turmoil he’s endured since her departure (“the crossroads I’m standin’ at.”) Yet he doesn’t mean to press her for answers (“I’m not askin’ you to say words like ‘yes’ or ‘no’,”) perhaps because he’s afraid at what the answer might be.

In the final verse, Dylan turns it around and puts the onus on the girl, asking her to “look inside your mirror.” His parting shot is a doozy:  “I’d just be curious to know if you can see yourself as clear/As someone who has had you on his mind.” In other words, lying to others is bad, sweetheart, but lying to yourself is even worse.

It’s a surprisingly moving little song, one that catches you unaware much like those fleeting thoughts that cross the narrator’s mind. Why Dylan felt that “Mama, You Been On My Mind” didn’t deserve an official release before popping up on various Bootleg Series incarnations is beyond me. The bottom line is we got it eventually, a truthful treatise on the beautiful ache of love’s aftermath.

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Bob Dylan Countdown #108: “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”

Dylan once told an audience that this song title was meant to be read as a math equation. That is, it’s supposed to go Love Minus Zero divided by No Limit. Division is simply multiplying the inverse, and the inverse of no limit would be a strict limit. Love minus zero is simply love. Ergo, the answer is love times a strict limit, which is what exactly? Is Dylan trying to say that the object of his affections only has so much love to offer him? Or have I become hopelessly lost trying to do mathematical equations on intangible emotions?

You can be the judge on that. What is certain is that the quality that seems to fascinate the narrator most about this girl is her restraint. While the rest of the world seems to be falling over themselves trying to figure out the meaning of life, she just accepts her circumstances and sits idly by as everyone is drawn to her inner peace. Still waters run deep.

Look at all the indicators of her calm in the eye of the storm. “She speaks like silence/Without ideals or violence,” and “she speaks softly.” She “winks, she does not bother.” It plays into the old maxim that those with the greatest wisdom are often the ones most reticent to display it.

The narrator is equally reserved in his observations, which is perhaps why he’s so attracted. Note also that there is never any blathering on about her physical appearance. This seems to be a love kindled not by the fire of passion, but rather by the sparks of admiration.

I think Dylan made the right choice going with a full band for this Bringing It All Back Home evergreen. The band fleshes out Bob’s reflections nicely, grounding them while projecting just the right tone of light bemusement. Guitarist Bruce Langhorne answers the singer’s exhortations with graceful, lilting licks.

So that means you’ve got Dylan flashing his descriptive skills, plus one of his great fictional muses inspiring those skills, plus excellent musical backing. It adds up to “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” an understated classic. That’s math we can all understand.

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Bob Dylan Countdown #109: “This Wheel’s On Fire”

The Band took their own crack at this Basement Tapes track on Music From Big Pink, but they didn’t quite get the tone right. Speeding up the tempo and adding a clavichord that’s way too prominent in the mix, the song is drained of much of its mystery. Rick Danko’s frenzied vocal does pick up the slack somewhat, but this was one instance where Bob’s buddies missed the boat a bit.

They would have been better served trying to recreate some of that Basement Tapes mojo, although, if they could do that, I guess it wouldn’t have been that special in the first place. The recording of the song Bob & The Band created in Woodstock has a creeping menace to it, all the instrumentalists inexorably trudging down a path that leads to some dark end. Dylan, Danko, and Richard Manuel stagger through the chorus together, as if the words are too heavy to lift.

From music written by Danko, Dylan creates a tale that’s almost sinister in the way it insinuates and suggests but never spells the facts out. I’ve always heard the narrator as someone who has done a favor, likely something not quite on the up-and-up, for the person he is addressing, and he’s now come to collect his payment. Maybe he was an intermediary for someone even more dangerous (“You’ll remember you’re the one/That called on me to call on them/To get you your favors done.”) Someone even further down the ladder, so to speak.

His favored phrase (“If your mem’ry serves you well”) sounds like just the kind of thing a smooth-talker of questionable morals would say to partially hide his threatening nature. Even more ominous is his repeated suggestion that these two are destined to meet again. Where? I’m guessing that it’s a place where all those who have made self-betraying compromises must answer for them.

When the wheel does explode, all that is hidden will be revealed. “This Wheel’s On Fire” leaves scorched souls in its slowly-trodden path.

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Bob Dylan Countdown #110: “One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below)”

Dylan claimed this song was inspired by a visit to a gypsy festival in France. If so, he must have been taking some excellent mental notes at this meeting. Bob met the King of the Gypsies at this encounter, but, in song, he puts the focus on his exotic daughter, creating a vivid portrait in just three short verses.

This song is as good as any to point out that doesn’t get near enough credit for his melodic abilities. Even the tunes that he borrowed in part from other songs are usually turned and twisted ever so slightly to lend impact to his own lyrics. “One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below)” is wholly his own creation, and the tune that he generates practically hypnotizes the listener. Scarlet Rivera’s haunting violin adds beautifully to the effect.

I love the way that Dylan describes this girl in part by closely detailing her surroundings. You can tell a lot about her through the depiction of the controlling father, leader of these people, whose facade of power is crumbling (note the trembling voice.) Her mother and sisters spend their time predicting the future, the only kind of knowledge useful in this world (hence the lack of books.)

With the frame of her world in place, Dylan can clearly portray the object of his unfulfilled desire. After spending the first few lines describing her stunning physical attributes, he reveals the emptiness at their core: “But I don’t sense affection no gratitude or love/Your loyalty is not to me but to the stars above.” Her unquenchable thirst for pleasure is contrasted by her coldness:  “But your heart is like an ocean/Mysterious and dark.”

Yet, even with these warning signs, the narrator wants to wring out his stay as long as possible. The “valley below” for which he is destined may just be a geographical destination or it could symbolize a fate as dark as this girl’s heart. Dylan leaves us guessing, even as we’re still pondering the wondrous gypsy girl. Much like the brief visit taken by the narrator to this mysterious world, “One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below)” quickly transports us to a world most of us will never encounter and yet, thanks to the song, somehow now innately understand.

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