Thursday, April 21, 2011

"This was just about the time of that Woodstock festival, which was the sum total of all this bullshit."

 Alternate title: "Well, fuck it. I wish these people would just forget about me. I wanna do something they can't possibly like, they can't relate to."

by Brendan Cavanagh

Well, with finals coming up and the semester wrapping up before summer break, I've had plenty to do.  Over the course of the next week, I'll be writing a couple English papers about William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and James Joyce's "Araby," then a full ten-pager comparing a couple Irish films and how they exemplify themes that have arisen out of the Irish experience, followed by an education philosophy, an epic poem relating my experience shadowing an English teacher earlier this year and a handful other looming projects that I don't seem to have track of right now.

Instead of doing all this I've been exceptionally apathetic, trying to find any reason not to get some much-needed work done.  For instance, yesterday I went to CVS with a friend, came back to my dormitory and immediately got in someone else's car and went to another CVS.  I mean, a guy can only buy so much Kleenex and sweet tea, you know? So to alleviate my pain while attempting to complete the monumental amount of homework I have in store, I've made it a point to keep easy-going music playing on my iPod, in particular focusing heavily on an oft-overlooked period of Bob Dylan's career, from about 1969-1970.

After suffering a debilitating motorcycle crash in 1966, Dylan experienced an epiphany of sorts and realized how much bigger than himself he had become.  Tired of being the poster boy for the generation, he tried to fade into temporary obscurity in order to be with his family and focus on music he liked making at the time.  At this point, Dylan had sort of extricated himself from the cryptic rock n roll he became known for in the late 60s and instead decided to try his hand at country.  In 1969, he released Nashville Skyline, which despite the new, crooning voice he had picked up to match his music's sound, is actually quite good. 

 Nashville Skyline (1969)

Among the thirty-odd minutes of Nashville Skyline stand a few key tracks:

1. "I Threw It All Away"

A bittersweet song about a love he once had, and about how he took his love for granted and subsequently lost her due to carelessness.  Dylan stresses to the listener not to do the same because "love is all there is, it makes the world go 'round."

2. "Lay Lady Lay"

Dylan's big single from Nashville Skyline. As the title suggests, the song is very sexy. Unlike "I Threw It All Away," Dylan actually has a woman of his own here that he loves very much, and he pleads with her to stay the night with him and spoon a little bit. "His clothes are dirty, but his hands are clean," he comfortingly tells her, humbling himself to her beauty. To me, the song is an auditory representation of that feeling you have on a lazy summer morning, when you simply feel good without needing a reason.

The rest of the album follows in the same tradition, featuring a healthy dose of finger-picking and ragtime piano-pounding, with a nice "twang" playing throughout. In a similar fashion, Dylan's 1970 follow-up, Self Portrait, features him crooning his way through a double album of pop and folk covers and identically mellow original creations. The album was heavily lambasted by fans and critics alike (a reviewer for Rolling Stone opened his review with the line "What is this shit?"), and even Dylan has never seemed to express any profound appreciation for it.  Instead, he's argued, he was sick and tired of everyone expecting so much from him, so he scrounged together all the warm-ups and outtakes from Nashville Skyline and the later 1970 release, New Morning, and threw it on a double album ("I mean, if you're gonna put a lot of crap on it, you might as well load it up!"). 

Self Portrait (1970)

However incoherent or sloppy, more than a few tracks really appeal to me because of the down-home, easy-going sound he embraced at the time.  These have been on repeat lately:

1. "Let It Be Me"

A cover of the Everly Brothers classic (or the breath-taking Jerry Butler & Betty Everett cover). Like it does on a number of other songs from Self Portrait, the guitar in this song is smooth beyond belief. The song is so honest- the singer simply wants to be with the woman that makes him happiest.

2. "I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know"

The best example of crooning I can provide. Dylan sings somberly about a man who stole away his lover. As time has passed, Dylan's learned to move on and forget her, but the amount of pleasing mannerisms, idiosyncrasies and sexual benefits he's had to forget infinitely surmount what the new guy will ever learn about her. An easy song to relate to- you don't get the girl you want, but you know you're the right one for her, that no one else could ever possibly know about or love her as much as you do.

3. "The Boxer"

An initially laughable, but surprisingly catchy cover of Simon & Garfunkel's hit single. Dylan double-tracks his voice on this song, essentially harmonizing with himself. A must-listen.

A couple songs on Self Portrait have a few women harmonizing the backing vocals, noticeably on "Let It Be Me." Presumably, the same women are featured every now and then on Dylan's subsequent release, New Morning, which followed a more traditional approach to the construction of an album, garnering more tolerable reviews from critics and fans. The album is striking because it is stripped down, with much less fanfare than Dylan's previous albums. Simply boasting some guitar, piano and earthy vocals, it takes some listening to to fully appreciate its simplicity.

New Morning (1970)

Two favorites:

1. "The Man In Me"

Perhaps recognizable to any fans of The Big Lebowski, as it was used several times throughout the film. While the lyrics are humble and show Dylan achingly acknowledging that this one woman is the key to bringing out his true self, one of the strongest portions of the song is when the aforementioned female harmonizers take over at the end and fade out with a repeated "Ahh-ahh-ahh" over a clanging, albeit subtle guitar riff.

2. "Day Of The Locusts"

You see, even if he tries to escape the music of his past, Dylan still contains the same feelings he once had. Instead of ragging on the self-satisfied girl in "Like A Rolling Stone" or "Positively 4th Street," Dylan's vindictive fury is released upon people that try to put him in a box, man. Specifically, when Dylan was presented with an honorary doctorate at Princeton University in June of 1970, he became aggravated by the impositions made of him- like having to wear a cap and gown in order to receive his award- and the implications of his celebrity status- like taking a limousine to the ceremony. Though his severe paranoia may have been induced by the two joints he smoked in the limo on the way there with David Crosby of The Byrds/Crosy, Stills & Nash. Either way, Dylan smartly decided to relate his feelings of being overwhelmed to the 17-year cicada infestation plaguing Princeton at the time, and came up with this song.

A lot of people tend to focus on Bob Dylan's golden period- albums like Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde- but I think that just because his quieter, country period wasn't as popular at the time doesn't mean it isn't warranted a listen. Anyway, without all those drums and howls and harmonica solos, I find it easier to concentrate on my homework...which I will begin...nowwwwww.

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