Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Blood on Your Saddle

Last weekend, after nearly a year of waiting on the list, I was finally able to check out Dylan's Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3 from the public library. I've listened to little else since. The first CD covers Dylan's early folk years, the second focuses on the electric 1960's material, and the third disk is a fairly random assortment of songs from the 1970's onward. But, for me, the real revelation has been the alternate versions of classic Blood on the Tracks songs like "Tangled Up in Blue" and "If You See Her, Say Hello", which sound remarkably different, and in some instances better(!!), than the versions on the original album. Dylan had initially recorded these songs in New York, but he was not satisfied with the final product. So he re-recorded the material in Minneapolis with another band, and the result was one of the greatest albums in the history of mankind. But after hearing the initial product, I'm not sure why he wasn't happy with the first set (he should have released both!).

The song that changed the most between recording sessions was "Idiot Wind" - my favorite song of Dylan's (and probably my favorite song period). If you've never heard this epic, please listen to it as soon as possible, and then listen to it again and again. I simply can't do it justice in one short post. The song is a masterpiece of poetry and music, bursting with raw emotion and spectacular imagery that vividly expresses the fallout from Dylan's recent divorce. And it's fascinating to hear the contrast between the two versions. Whereas the Minneapolis version is angry and defiant, the NY version takes the listener to the brink of complete despair. Dylan sounds broken and defeated, and every word drips with pain.

The lyrics are also substantially different, although the message is still the same. This is a song full of inversions (call it Dylan's "theology of the cross"), where "everything's a little upside down, as a matter of fact the wheels have stopped, What's good is bad, what's bad is good, you'll find out when you reach the top, You're on the bottom." Indeed, the Minneapolis version contains some potent christological imagery:
There's a lone soldier on the cross, smoke pourin' out of a boxcar door,
You didn't know it, you didn't think it could be done,
in the final end he won the wars, After losin' every battle.

However, in the NY version this verse has changed; the soldier is now "on a hill, watching falling raindrops pour." And Dylan is less accusatory towards the "you" of this song, saying instead "you'd never know it to look at him, but at the final shot he won the war." What caused him to change these lyrics? And what is the significance of the burning boxcar? It's interesting that in the live recording of "Idiot Wind" that appears on Hard Rain, the verse is different again:
There's a lone soldier on the cross, smoke pourin' out of a boxcar door,
He didn't know it, he never thought it could be done,
but at the final shot he won the war, After losin' every battle.

Such minor perturbations fascinate me. Dylan wrote these lyrics a few years before his born-again experience, but a number of songs from Blood on the Tracks suggest that he was already interested in Christian themes (see "Shelter from the Storm"). If anyone has further insights into this matter, I would love to hear them.

A few other verses are substantially changed. For instance, compare the following lyrics from the NY and MN versions, respectively:
We pushed each other a little too far, and one day it just turned into a raging storm.
A hound dog bayed behind your trees as I was packing up my uniform. I figured I'd lost you anyway, Why go on? What's the use? In order to get in a word with you, I'd have had to come up with some excuse. It just struck me kinda funny.

I can't feel you anymore, I can't even touch the books you've read.
Every time I crawl past your door, I been wishin' I was somebody else instead.
Down the highway, down the tracks, down the road to ecstasy, I followed you beneath the stars, hounded by your memory, And all your ragin' glory

It seems to me that the NY version is more direct and personal, while the one from MN is more poetic and angry. But it's hard to say which is better. The same goes for "If You See Her, Say Hello." The MN song is great, but the NY version is truly breathtaking. It ends with a gut-wrenching harmonica solo in which Dylan seemly tries to purge his soul of all the pain. He leaves every ounce of himself on the record, proving again that emotional catharsis, when expressed by a genius like Dylan, makes for terrific art.


Joseph said...

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Ben Myers said...

Beautiful post -- and it's nice to meet another Dylan fan! I think Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 is one of the most magnificent albums Dylan has ever released -- and I agree with you about the stunning Blood on the Tracks outtakes. "Idiot Wind" is also my favourite -- the two versions are so astonishingly different; and, as you say, the contrast between the slow version and the Hard Rain version almost defies belief. For me, these different versions of "Idiot Wind" are really the dialectics of a single song, a song that is large enough to incorporate such diverse interpretations.

Vol. 3 also includes some outtakes that are among the best songs Dylan ever wrote: e.g. "Angelina", "Foot of Pride", "Blind Willie McTell", "Series of Dreams". And I think my favourite song from Vol. 1 would have to be the wonderfully funny "Rambling Gambling Willie", which contains that audaciously coined word "gamblinest": "He had a reputation as the gamblin'est man around..." That line delights me every time I hear it.

Luthsem said...

Bob Dylan is my favorite songwriter of all times!!

jim brazell said...

Listening to Idiot Wind now from Blood Tracks...always been a real favorite...Now however, I have TellTale Signs and ya'll just hear "born in Time"