[sixties-l] Bob Dylan: Sometimes He Talks Crazy, Crazy Like a Song

From: radtimes (resist@best.com)
Date: Mon Sep 03 2001 - 18:19:44 EDT

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    September 2, 2001

    Bob Dylan: Sometimes He Talks Crazy, Crazy Like a Song



    Bob Dylan: 'Love and Theft'
    Columbia 85975; to be released on Sept. 11

    There's an old man who lives in your neighborhood, drinking away his days
    as if they were bottles. He lives by himself in a small house, though
    others are known to disappear into it: "Samantha Brown, lived in my house
    for about four or five . . . months," he announces one day on the street,
    his voice tearing like cloth. "I never slept with her eeeeeven once." As if
    anyone cares.
    An odd character, in his funny way of nodding as you walk by, in the
    cadence of his speech when he stops to pass the time one moment he might be
    whispering a confidence, the next giving a speech but also ordinary. He
    does nod, he does pass the time. On occasion he asks you in, you and your
    spouse or another neighbor, asks you into his parlor which really is a
    parlor. A few old, comfortable chairs, shelves of books. There's a spinet
    piano with a collection of sheet music in the compartment in the piano
    bench, some of it handwritten: his own songs.
    Not everything is old-fashioned. The '65 Mustang in the garage and the '59
    Cadillac at the curb seem to promise a future that merely hasn't arrived
    yet. Along with the floral lampshades and throw rugs there's a CD player
    and hundreds of CD's, though most are of blues and country tunes recorded
    in the 1920's and 1930's. "See if there's anything you want to hear," he
    always says, without taking his eyes off you as you choose.
    He's an explainer. One of the songs he sings at the piano, one of his own,
    is called "Po' Boy," though the tune sounds like the folk song "Cocaine."
    With a wry couplet ("Call down to room service, say send up the room") and
    a knock-knock joke, it tells a story about the Prodigal Son. Seeing you
    pick a Bukka White CD with his version of the song, or anyway the title
    recorded at Parchman State Penitentiary in Mississippi in 1939, the man
    points out he leans back and lets the burst of guitar notes that seem to
    send this "poor boy long way from home" straight to heaven wash over him
    like rain, then shows you Ramblin' Thomas's 1929 "Poor Boy Blues" ("A
    Dallas street singer," he says), then Chuck Berry's 1964 "Promised Land,"
    about the odyssey of "the Po' Boy" from his hometown, Norfolk, Va., to Los
    The song was written when Berry was in federal prison in Springfield, Mo.,
    the man tells you ("When he wanted an atlas to get the route right, they
    thought he was planning an escape!"), but he's just warming up. "See, what
    the song is really about is the civil rights movement, the Freedom Riders,
    the way he plans the Po' Boy's bus route to avoid Rock Hill, that's in
    North Carolina, a Klan town, then the bus breaks down in Birmingham, where
    the Klan blew up a church and killed four little girls, that was in 1963,
    'turned into a struggle,' see? It's all in this book by a professor named
    W. T. Lhamon, 'Deliberate Speed.' " Nobody has any idea what he's talking
    about, but the story is romantic, somehow.
    The man's own songs have pleasant names like "Bye and Bye" or "Moonlight."
    The way he sings and plays them, with a phony-looking toothpaste smile,
    suggests how he once tried to sell them. In moments they sound ridiculously
    corny less like Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust" than Jeanette MacDonald and
    Nelson Eddy's "Indian Love Call" or it's a parlor from the 19th century
    that comes into view, and you almost hear the old sentimental songs of home
    and courtship, family, death and renewal, even though the songs are off.
    They're not as slick as the published tunes that keep them company in the
    piano bench though you can tell they were meant to be. Often they end with
    a sourness, a sting, even a violence, that parlors were made to banish from
    their doors.
    The man takes midnight walks, tramping the streets even to the edge of
    town, muttering about all he hates, about everything he wants to destroy,
    preaching or telling dirty stories, gesturing wildly, his hair flying. One
    night you heard him going on about a woman, it seemed, but then he turned
    into a general on his horse as quickly as the horse then turned into a
    pulpit and the general into a prophet. "I'm going to spare the defeated,
    I'm going to speak to the crowd," he said, whoever he really was. "I'm
    going to teach peace to the conquered, IIIIII'm going to tame the proud."
    Sometimes he sounds crazy, but the same sound can be seductive, especially
    in his seeming disdain for all those he wants dead, banished, out of his
    world. You catch something strange and glamorous in his voice: how you
    might feel if you had the nerve to talk like this. And it can happen right
    in his house. Suddenly he is speaking with such intensity that you hear
    his rants as songs and imagine a band behind them. He begins to speak
    loudly, angrily, hitting random blues riffs on his piano, then slamming
    down hard and turning to you to speak of the fun he's had and that he
    might and here he is weirdly threatening have again. "You say my eyes are
    pretty and my smile is nice," he says, though you haven't said a word. "I
    sell it to you at a reduced price."
    Once he told a story about a flood, then began to sing it, without the piano:
    "You have to hear a banjo now," he'd said. What followed felt more mystical
    than real. It was the great 1927 Mississippi flood, it was Noah's flood, it
    was Iowa just last spring, it was the entire last century as a giant
    mistake, crying out for its own cleansing, asking to be washed away before
    it was too late. "Made it to Kansas City," he says of someone called Big
    Joe Turner: in his mouth the words seem to name as well Davy Crockett,
    Jesse James, John Henry, Stagger Lee, Railroad Bill, each bestriding the
    continent. He plays with old songs inside the story the mountain ballad
    "The Coo Coo," say, turning the benign lyrics inside out, or revealing
    their true menace.
    "The coo coo, she's a pretty bird, she warbles as she flies," he says with
    easy pleasure, then changing into Robert Mitchum's preacher in "The Night
    of the Hunter," still smiling: "I'm preaching the word of God, I'm putting
    out your eyes." Then he goes back to the piano and sings about how he hopes
    she'll meet him in the moonlight. Then he passes out, and everyone leaves.
    The stories people tell of the nights they've spent with the man have long
    since become local legend. But the legend that sticks hardest comes from
    what people will call "Sugar Baby": the message the man leaves
    on his answering machine when he leaves town. Given what people have heard
    before, as they listen they can almost spin the slow, deliberate words of
    the message into singing, and the singing into an elegant orchestration of
    slow, deliberate chords something that years from now they won't be able to
    get out of their heads. "Sugar Baby," they'll still say to each other,
    probably long after the man himself is dead; it's become a saying, meaning
    "That's life" or "There's nothing we can do about it."
    Some people will remember how the man used to take out an album by a
    stone-faced character named Dock Boggs, a singer from the Virginia
    mountains, who first recorded in 1927, the man would carefully explain;
    he'd play a song called "Sugar Baby." That was real killer-inside-me stuff;
    "Sugar Baby" was what Boggs called his lover, who you weren't sure would
    survive the song. On the message the man leaves, "Sugar Baby" the words
    leading off every refrain seems to be the name of a horse. The feeling,
    though the sense of a life used up, wasted as every life is finally
    wasted, leaving the earth as if one's life had never been is the same. The
    feeling is that there is all the time in the world to take stock, if only
    in the ledger you keep in your heart to settle accounts, to tell jokes you
    half hope no one will get. "I'm staying with Aunt Sally," the man says on
    the machine, "but you know she not really my aunt." You laugh, and then
    something in his tone pulls you down into the emptiness he's speaking
    from. As in the parlor, he has led you to relax into his exile.
    THAT is just a story. But "Love and Theft," Bob Dylan's first collection of
    new songs in four years, is an album of stories, some told to the end, some
    of the most remarkable only hinted at. "High Water Everywhere (For Charley
    Patton)" is both.
    Born perhaps as early as 1887 or as late as 1901, Patton, a founder of the
    Mississippi Delta blues, recorded from 1929 until his death in 1934. "His
    vowels were stretched out, inflated from within; they expanded until they
    were all but unrecognizable," Tom Piazza wrote recently about how hard it
    can be to hear him but in the teasing murk of his sound, Piazza said, "he
    opened a window in time for himself." It's that window Dylan walks through
    as if it were a door. While you can find a transcription of the lyrics of
    Patton's "High Water Everywhere" in John Fahey's 1970 book "Charley
    Patton," which is reprinted as part of "Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues:
    The Worlds of Charley Patton," a seven-CD boxed set due in October from
    Revenant Records, Patton's singing could hardly be more underwater: "I
    firmly believe, and have believed for years," a friend says, "that Charley
    Patton is not singing in English on 'High Water.' " Compared with the dirt
    in Patton's voice, the rubble in Dylan's may sound as smooth as glass, but
    the impenetrability of Patton's song is there in Dylan's: in riddles and
    Verse by verse, the flood spreads, takes in and upends more lives, making
    everyone understand that your freedoms under the Constitution are nothing
    compared to what God wants from you this night. "You dancing with whom they
    tell you to," Dylan has one Bertha Mason say, "or you don't dance at all."
    "It's bad out there," a verse ends. "It's tough out there." "Things are
    breaking up out there." But then in the midst of the disaster, a fable
    stands out as if clearing its own space in the maelstrom. "Well," Dylan
    says, "George Lewes told the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew" (who just
    walked into a bar):

    You can't open up your minds, boys, to every conceivable point of view
    They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway 5
    Judge says to the High Sheriff, I want him dead or alive
    Either one, I don't . . . care

    Dissolving into mystery as soon as it seems clear, the story will be there
    as long as any in Dylan's signature "Highway 61 Revisited," from 1965; this
    could be a verse from it. But the heart of "Love and Theft" the window
    Dylan's new music itself opens up in time is in that final "care,"
    dropping off its line like a body falling out of a window, with the same
    thud. A whole world of rejection, of nothingness, of the humor shared by
    dead men walking because the graveyard is full a whole way of being in the
    world, and a whole way of talking about it, opens up out of that single
    word, out of the way it's thrown away, and what it throws away with it. As
    Raymond Chandler had his detective Philip Marlowe say in 1953 in "The Long
    Goodbye," in the same voice: "It all depends on where you sit and what your
    private score is. I didn't have one. I didn't care." Then Marlowe went out
    and solved the case.
    Greil Marcus is the author of "The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob
    Dylan's Basement Tapes," a new edition of his"Invisible Republic," which
    will be published this month by Picador USA.

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