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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