Bob Dylan Countdown #141: “Clean Cut Kid”Posted: February 9, 2012
It’s all about the juxtaposition on this underrated cut from an underrated album (Empire Burlesque.) Had that music been accompanied by lyrics that were just as loose and frivolous, it would have sounded like a novelty song. Had those lyrics been accompanied by music that was just as searing and accusatory, it would have sounded dour and humorless.
Instead, the clashing styles make “Clean Cut Kid” one of those unheralded Dylan songs that take you by surprise no matter how many times you hear it. Despite all of the switching lineups on the album, the one that assembled for this track was A-list, featuring Anton Fig (from David Letterman’s band) peppering the drums with an off-kilter flair, Benmont Tench (from the Heartbreakers) barreling down the road on piano, and Ronnie Wood (from some British blues band that has been around a while) knifing through the dense production on guitar.
When you add in the ubiquitous backing vocalists, it’s a pretty thick soup. It’s also the funkiest track you’ll ever hear about a shell-shocked veteran returning home. Dylan sums it up pretty quickly in the first verse: “Everybody wants to know why he couldn’t adjust/Adjust to what, a dream that bust?”
Dylan fills the first part of the song with Norman Rockwell images of American youth. (Although, a watermelon stand? I guess it fits the meter better than lemonade, but most of us weren’t that industrious.) From that point of innocence, the contrast to the world of war the protagonist enters shatters his mind and his soul, until “The only game he could play was Russian Roulette.” (You think Bob saw The Deer Hunter?)
This being Dylan, the narrative is muddied slightly so that you start to think twice who the subject of the song might be. The lines about meeting Peter O’ Toole and stealing a Rolls Royce makes you think more of a young celebrity given too much too soon than a Vietnam vet.
Ultimately, the point is that innocence of all stripes can be corrupted. It’s a message that could have been delivered with a blunt instrument, but, on “Clean Cut Kid”, Dylan wraps up it in a nice shiny package, all the better to emphasize how those who fall for tempting promises of glory often disregard the price that must be paid to fulfill them.