George Harrison – Early Takes, Volume 1

First thought, best thought? Well, on the evidence of George Harrison’s Early Takes, Volume 1, there might be something to be said for this old maxim. There is a freshness, immediacy and intimacy in the ten tracks that comprise this companion piece to Martin Scorsese’s documentary on the life of the late Beatle that is lacking in most of his post-fabs releases. For me, George Harrison’s uneven solo output tends to be overproduced and somewhat bland. In fact, I don’t really count myself as a die-hard Harrison fan. I usually find his slightly nasally singing voice, and thick Liverpudlian accent hard to take for more than a couple of songs, yet this latest CD has been on high rotation since I bought it on impulse a few weeks back. The songs are beautifully written: melodic gems with thoughtful, soulful lyrics about life, death, eternity, and, of course, love. And you don’t need to be a devotee of shaved heads and poppadums to enjoy them.

Most tracks are either demos, or early versions of some of Harrison’s best material — for the most part, they are sparse, and lack the production sheen of their better known counterparts, yet the lack of complex instrumentation, arrangements and studio gimmickry work in their favor. This is not to say these early takes are amateurish, hissy boom box recordings. Harrison installed a state of the art recording facility in his mansion, so unlike his band mate, John Lennon, Harrison’s demos are hi-fidelity sketches, which reveal far more about the man’s music than Scorsese’s rather tedious biography. We actually hear Harrison play guitar in a wide range of styles, and get a palpable sense of his love of making music.

There are snippets of Harrison’s trademark slide guitar, but the acoustic guitar is his weapon of choice on this album. He wields the instrument with considerable flair and confidence, revealing a mastery of several techniques, from Dylan-like strums to complex country runs, that are not obviously evident on his fully produced releases.

The album is consistently good, but I particularly enjoyed hearing Harrison accompanied by Ringo Starr and Klaus Voormann on ‘My Sweet Lord’ and ‘Awaiting On You All’ (well, I’m assuming Starr thumps the skins and Voormann plucks the bass since the CD doesn’t come with many credits, or liner notes). These two tracks evoke the sound of Lennon’s spartan debut, and demonstrate just how effective a simple, sympathetic rhythm section can be (take note, Phil Spector).

It’s no secret that Harrison and Bob Dylan were good friends, and Dylan is represented by two songs. ‘I’d Have You Anytime’ (a Dylan/Harrison composition) sounds lush without being cloying, and Harrison does justice to Dylan’s ‘Mama You’ve Been On My Mind’ by delivering a sober, yet delicate vocal that sits above a very accomplished acoustic guitar, which is occasionally complemented by subtle washes of keyboards.

Other highlights include the slightly spooky Everley Brothers song ‘Let It Be Me’ (they didn’t write, but believe me, it’s theirs). Harrison harmonizes with himself and reminds us of just how important his vocal contribution was to the Beatles in boy band mode. ‘All Things Must Pass’ (which sounds like it also has Starr and Voormann playing supporting roles) is the best Beatles song the band never officially recorded. In fact, bootlegs exist of the group making a few lame, half-assed attempts to work something up, and you can hear how great Lennon and McCartney’s harmonies could have been. Early Takes, showcases this outstanding song in it’s best light: Harrison’s vocal is assured and soulful.

Some might complain that the album is a rip-off since it clocks in at a mere 30 minutes. I actually found the modest running time to be a strength. It’s all killer and no filler. Anyway, there have been some great albums that hover around the 30-minute mark (like Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, Simon And Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence, and Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska). Surely, quality always trumps quantity, no? Hopefully, there are other equally compelling tracks in the Harrison archive that his custodians will unearth for volume 2. Good Shit!

Giles Martin on Early Takes (a track by track account)

Bob Dylan and his Band: Live and in Person!

No doubt, Bob Dylan has heard it all: the chorus of boos that greeted his first public foray into electric rock music at the 1965 Newport folk festival, the infamous ‘Judas’ taunt in 1966, and the derisive jeers that mocked his notorious gospel concerts in the late 1970s and early 1980s are only the most obvious expressions of disappointment aimed at a man burdened with a ludicrous degree of adulation, admiration and expectation. When you carry such a load, you’re bound to piss people off from time to time. Perhaps more than any single figure in recent history, Dylan functions as a kind of canvass upon which his fans draw idealized images of what they consider him to be: a poet, a prophet, outlaw, fake, or even a star of electricity, as Todd Haynes put it in his extraordinary cinematic rendering of the Dylan myth.

Fans get mightily agitated when the man confounds their expectations, and heads in unforeseeable directions as an artist and man. After all, we have a lot invested in the Dylan’s music, and we want him to make us proud. Actually, we often just want him to confirm our own take on life, our own narrow political beliefs and prejudices. I remember my own sense of horror when Bob released Slow Train Coming in 1979. I’d recently discovered Dylan and Karl Marx, and become intoxicated by the heady dose of self-righteousness and indignation that both writers inspired in my adolescent mind. I desperately wanted to change the world that had gone so badly wrong by entrenching poverty and misery as a norm for so many.

I was outraged by Dylan’s turn to Christianity because I held religion responsible for many of the world’s ills. Shit, surely the guy who sung ‘With God On Our Side’ couldn’t be speaking in tongues and hastening the end of days, could he? Besides, how could the ‘voice of a generation,’ the rebel beatnik who wrote ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ and so many other great songs that rallied against injustice and inequality fall for such hokum as born-again Christianity? For me, as a right-on teenager, things were black and white. I knew which side I was on, and fuck anyone who took a different path.

Needless to say, I’ve mellowed with age, and I’m now willing to tolerate all kinds of dissent and dispute. Hell, I’ll even give Fox news a pass (from time to time — I’m not that tolerant of outright vapidity as an everyday occurrence). Anyway, Slow Train Coming is now one of my favourite Dylan albums. See how liberal I’ve become now that the scales of dogma have fallen from my eyes. And, in a way, I, too, have been born again. I’ve morphed into a respectable, middle-class professional (with a decent disposable income). This in itself is nothing extraordinary. However, it’s this current born-again persona that’s largely responsible for my current beef with the great man. Yes, folks, Dylan has pissed me off again, and the preceding paragraphs are nothing more than a preamble to explaining why I’m so incensed.

So here’s the deal, and I’ll let you be the judge of whether it’s a big one. I paid $175 to see Dylan’s concert at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Australia on Thursday 21 April 2011, a date that will go down in infamy. That’s one hundred and seventy five dollars multiplied by two, by the way (I took my teenage son, who, incidentally has never had a problem with Slow Train Coming, since I trained him to be tolerant of all creeds by whacking him around the ear every time he said something bigoted).

Anyway, as a loyal customer of the Ticketek Corporation, I was granted the privilege of securing pre-sale tickets. I fired up my computer at the anointed hour, typed the prized pre-sale code into the appropriate box on the screen, and lucked out by getting fourth row seats, front and center. I usually get nosebleed seats at arena concerts, so I was stoked — and it’s an understatement to say I was eagerly anticipating the event. After all, I’d be in close proximity to a living legend. Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I’ve got to come clean, and admit that I’d seen Dylan on many other occasions, and even had good seats once (back in 2001 at the same venue when he delivered an absolutely stunning set that I’ve never forgotten, perhaps because most Dylan performances I’d witnessed were so mediocre). So, I wasn’t a Dylan virgin. I knew what to expect, or so I’d imagined.

I expected to see Australia’s own Dylan, Paul Kelly — he seems to get all the prestigious support slots, especially if someone literate like Dylan or Cohen is touring Australia. I’m not a big fan of Mr. Kelly, but I’ve seen enough of him at these arena gigs to appreciate his artistry. I expected Dylan, to play very little guitar, and turn his back to good proportion of the audience when he played his keyboard. I expected the coarse, sandpaper bark that passes for his voice these days. I expected the throng, of greying, middle-aged hippies with expanding waistlines to sing along with those songs that still retained their original melodies. I expected the band to keep their eyes peeled for any unexpected curve balls that Dylan might throw in mid-song. I expected loose arrangements, the occasional ramshackle ending, and, perhaps, a few moments of transcendental bliss when Dylan conjures the spirit of one of those ghosts from the Invisible Republic.

I also expected to buy a few pieces of tour merchandise at outrageously inflated prices, and maybe eat some of the junk food that’s always on offer at such events. I expected to see a few surreptitious scalpers and bootleggers, and I expected to moan about the poor sound quality that always seems to plague the Rod Laver Arena.

I didn’t expect to get into fight.

Ok, a heated exchange that almost ended in physical violence, then. I’m not really the fighting type (I’d have a hard time beating Woody Allen in his dotage), but, I can make like Larry David when provoked, and this unfortunate tendency has got me into more than a little trouble over the years. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to not call a crock a crock, and suck up patent abuses of power and prestige.

Things began as expected. Mr. Kelly, accompanied by his nephew, Dan, played an engaging set. I even snapped a couple of photographs. Man, I was so close. I couldn’t wait for the main event. Kelly departed the stage, fully deserving the warm applause of the audience. Then, there was a brief intermission while the stage was prepared for Dylan and band. I could feel the excitement building. How cool was this. I had amazing seats, and I was anticipating a stellar performance — I had a feeling that this one was going to be special. The lights slowly dimmed to black. The band took their positions, and then the crowd roared as the first strains of ‘Gonna Change My Way of Thinking’ — from Slow Train Coming, no less —washed over the auditorium. The crowd stood as one, row by row everyone stood to get a better glimpse of the man. I took my camera out of my pocket and started taking photographs. After a few minutes, I became aware of the people behind me yelling for me to sit down — they couldn’t see because the first three rows were still on their feet. I dutifully complied, out of politeness, and because I fully expected that everyone in front of me would also comply in the name of community spirit and fairness. After three or four songs it became obvious that the people who’d bought the best seats were going to remain on their feet for the duration, their backsides were not going to touch the plastic monstrosities that passed for chairs until the proverbial fat lady exhaled her last bellow, and Dylan left the stage.

I looked around me. The people immediately behind me kept yelling, the young man to my left, stood his ground, he’d obviously resolved to remain upright, and endure the slings and arrows of verbal abuse; the couple in front of me sang and danced without a shred of self-consciousness, irritating the crap out of me. I felt my blood pressure rising to dangerously high levels for a man of my vintage. I bit my tongue, hoping that those selfish fuckers would have the good grace to sit down after being on their feet for 30 minutes. No such luck. My inner Larry came to fore. I tapped the young man in front of me on the shoulder, and explained my predicament.

He looked slightly aghast, and dismissed my request by pointing out that he had to stand because those in front of him were also standing. Impeccable logic. How do you argue with that? I resumed my seat, fuming until my inner Larry could take no more. I made my request again, this time more insistently. Again, I was rebuked. Not content to sit it out passively, I stood for a third time, and shouted a full-throttled string of expletives at the young man just as Dylan finished ‘Tangled Up in Blue’. The crowd’s applause had died to an ambient hush, so my words rang out around the arena:

‘Sit down you selfish cunt, or I’ll fucking deck you!’

I swear I saw Dylan raise an eyebrow. I’m sure the great man heard me. What was he going to say?

‘You’re a liar, I don’t believe you?’

Obviously, I was no Keith Butler, and my boorish explosion of frustrated machismo was not going to constitute a turning point in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. The moment seemed to last an eternity before the band kicked into the next song. I sat down, defeated, humiliated, and shocked at my outburst. My sense of disgrace was exacerbated when an usher came to see what all the fuss was about. She was an absolute darling — sympathetic to my plight, and even willing to reason and then admonish the offending couple that blocked my view of the spectacle. After making a futile appeal to my adversaries, she patiently explained that Dylan’s camp had issued specific instructions to allow people to remain on their feet, so there was nothing she could do, sorry. WTF? Dylan himself was responsible for this shitty situation. What a night, and what a disappointment. The venal couple made a hasty retreat at the end of proceedings, possibly believing that I’d make good on my idle threat. They needn’t have worried, I wasn’t going to do Jack.

So, Dylan pissed me off, again, but he’d also given me pause for thought, again. Wasn’t it the music that mattered? Why was I so hung up on having an unobstructed view of the icon? Why privilege sight at a musical event? Isn’t rock and roll supposed to move people to shuffle their feet to the beat, shake, rattle and roll?

But I’d paid to see Dylan, damn it! I wanted my money’s worth! I wanted to sit comfortably in my chair after a hard day’s slog, and passively luxuriate in the mystical aura of celebrity.

So, there you have it, folks — the root cause of my anger. I hadn’t got what I expected, but ain’t that just the way life rolls? It’s taken me more than a year to summon the courage to reflect on this incident and interrogate my own response to the event described above. I’m still pissed, but more at myself than Dylan, or the self-regarding hordes who occupied the first three rows on that contentious April night, and, I have no doubt, I’ll be there when Dylan comes to town next time. He seems to have a knack for making me think (twice).

Studio Bootlegs

Before the Internet made almost everything available on-line, bootleg recordings were expensive and very hard to find, especially in Australia. I must have trawled through countless dodgy stores all over the world to find rare gems like the Beatles’ White Album demos (New York), or Springsteen’s first Columbia sessions (Singapore) — big Asian cities were always a safe bet back in the day, and I must of spent a fucking fortune on records, CDs and tapes that I hardly listen to anymore. For the most part, the recordings themselves were of poor quality — excessive tape hiss always detracted from the pleasure of hearing something unique, and slightly illicit, which is why my extensive collection of boots is bound for the junkyard. Yet the allure of the bootleg remains — it’s a kind of Holy Grail, a badge of honor testifying to the serious fan’s devotion to the pantheon of musical gods (or possibly just testifying to neurotic obsessive-compulsive tendencies).

Today, the best shit is just a click or two away. Not only is this stuff free, but the sound quality is usually good, and, if you can suspend the nagging feeling that you’re a low down thief, depriving multimillionaire rock gods of their filthy lucre, there’s a lot of fun to be had. Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorite recent discoveries. There are no live recordings on this page. This is because I generally find the aborted album, or studio demos more listening, and far more interesting (The Velvet Underground’s Live at Max’s Kansas City excepted, but that’s no longer a bootleg). Anyway, you’ll need to do a bit of digging around to find these gems, but the effort will be worth it. Trust me, folks.

Prince, The Undertaker (1994)

Prince is prolific. He’s recorded far more stuff than he can actually release without producing a glut. No doubt, his output is of variable quality, and let’s face it, the man hasn’t had a genuine hit in a very long time, so his reputation rests on his impressive back catalogue. Anyway, The little purple master recorded The Undertaker for a guitar magazine in 1994, and the word is that his record company prevented its distribution because they couldn’t tolerate the prospect of giving the fans something for nothing.

The Undertaker sees Prince shine as a guitar god, fronting a potent power trio. He’s no Hendrix, but he’s the master of tone, and he really let’s rip on 7 gut busting tracks, which include a suitably sexy take on the Stones’ Honky Tonk Woman. The entire album was recorded live in one long take, which is no mean feat given the quality of the material on offer. It’s refreshing to hear Prince rock out with minimal backing. The sound quality is superb, by the way. The man can really wail, and he wields his axe with the attitude of a sexy muthafucker. Outstanding shit! I’m astounded that he left this in the can.

Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks (1974) — the complete New York Sessions

 

Dylan almost single-handedly created the bootleg record industry. His Little White Wonder collection is legendary, and deservedly occupies the place it holds in rock and roll mythology. I have a ton of Dylan boots, but the only one I play with any degree of regularity is the New York version of Blood on the Tracks, which, in its legitimately released form, is possibly the finest album in Dylan’s illustrious career. Let me make this clear, the official release is a masterpiece, and I think Dylan, for once, made a very astute call when he decided to re-record half the record in his home town, with a bunch of local musicians (who scandalously weren’t given credit for their outstanding contribution to the album). Andy Gill has written a compelling book about the sessions, which you can find here.

Dylan was unhappy with half the songs he recorded in New York, but none of these tunes remained in the vault for too long. They began circulating amongst hard-core fans almost immediately, and Columbia have released some of the rejected numbers as part of Dylan’s bootleg series. However, the entire New York version of the album has never appeared as an official collection, although this might change in the not too distant future.

While the New York rejects lack the passion and sparkle of their Minnesota counterparts, they do possess a unique charm. They all sound like they’re in the same tuning, if not the same key, and Dylan’s guitar drones like an Indian tamboura, which lends a certain melancholy tone to proceedings. He sounds, depressed, and resigned to the enduring pain of heartbreak and despair. The arrangements are sparse, and the mostly acoustic instrumentation creates an intimate atmosphere, which permeates the entire album. If you listen to the entire New York album in sequence, it sounds like it comes from a parallel universe. Once again, the sound quality is astonishingly good.

Keith Richards, Toronto, 1977

 

Down and out in Toronto, Canada, after his infamous drug bust for heroin possession, Richards took solace in music, baring his soul through a collection of country classics, and early rock and roll hits. He croaks and croons his way through songs like ‘All I Have to Do is Dream’ and George Jones’ ‘Say It’s Not You’ with the candor of a man who is about to make one last desperate plea for freedom before a hanging judge. He conjures some of Gram Parsons’ soulfulness in this assortment of semi-nostalgic odds and ends. Mostly accompanied by his own piano, which he plays with a kind of clunky grace, Keith’s unique voice takes center stage. Clearly, his piano chops are primitive, and his vocals depend exclusively on feel and emotion, yet he pulls the listener into his hazy, crazy universe, and displays a poignant vulnerability that is mostly absent from his cocky, swaggering pirate act that defined his image all those years ago. I doubt this shit will ever see an official release, so seek, and ye shall be rewarded, friends.

The Sex Pistols, Spunk, 1977

The surviving members of the Sex Pistols agree that Sid Viscous wasn’t much of a bass player. Guitarist Steve Jones played most of the bass parts on the Pistol’s iconic album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. The album was preceded by a semi-underground bootleg that has Glen Matlock on bass, and while his presence doesn’t really improve on Jones’ simple root note approach to the instrument, it does demonstrate how the band originally sounded. You can find a more expansive account of this recording here. Nuff said!

Bob Dylan-Memphis Blues

Memphis Blues ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’

By Dr. Chuck O’Boogie, Jr.

 a song is

anything that can walk by itself/i am called

a songwriter. a poem is a naked person . . . some

people say that i am a poet

(From the liner notes of Bringing it All Back Home, 1965)

What is a song? What is a songwriter? What is a poem? What is a poet? What is Bob Dylan trying to say in these liner notes? Is he making a series of ontological statements about songs and poems? Is he attempting to reconcile terms that appeared mutually exclusive until his appearance as a bard in the 1960s? Is he reminding us that the ancients made no distinction between poetry and song? Or is he putting us on, merely transcribing a stream of surreal thoughts to fulfill a generic obligation? Who can tell?

Sometime during his self-imposed exile from the music industry in the latter half of the 1970s, John Lennon recorded a series of Bob Dylan parodies for his own amusement. Ensconced in his luxury apartment in New York’s Dakota building, an imposing gothic structure overlooking the western edge of central park, Lennon could afford to have a private joke at the expense of his erstwhile friend. A self-described ‘house husband’ Lennon was content to watch the wheels of contemporary music turn from a safe distance while he baked bread, and tended to the needs of his young son, Sean. At least that’s the story he disseminated to his fans, many of whom found his premature retirement puzzling. The home recordings he made during this period, unpolished amateur affairs he obviously never intended to release, reveal a lot about his thoughts on the art of song writing. The Dylan pieces are especially instructive.

As a Beatle, Lennon found Dylan’s music inspirational, and several of his compositions — ‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away’ and ‘I’m a Loser’ to name the most obvious examples— bear the musical traces of Dylan’s influence in their use of acoustic guitar, harmonica, and the nasal whine in Lennon’s vocal performance. Lennon certainly admired Dylan as a lyricist, and started to compose ‘meaningful’ songs like ‘Help’ and ‘In My Life’ after meeting Dylan. He never wrote anything remotely like Dylan’s early ‘protest’ songs until much later in his career —‘Working Class Hero’ recorded for Lennon’s first solo album is obviously some kind of homage to Dylan. While never close friends, the two men formed a short-lived mutual admiration society in the mid-sixties. Dylan found the Beatles music refreshing, much to the chagrin of the folkies who viewed the British invaders as the flag bearers for ‘inauthentic’ commercial music. The Beatles were a significant influence on Dylan’s decision to ‘go electric’. His song ‘Fourth Time Around’ is a not so subtle pastiche of Lennon’s ‘Norwegian Wood,’ demonstrating a direct connection with his transatlantic colleagues. Todd Haynes refers to this cross-fertilization in I’m Not There. Cate Blanchett’s Dylan, Jude, playfully cavorts with the Beatles. The scene pays homage to Richard Lester’s Beatle movies in its kinetic visual style, and the influence of mind-altering substances on the music of the 60s (Dylan supposedly introduced the Beatles to Marijuana).

Both Dylan and Lennon, at different points in their respective careers, enjoyed playing with words, revelling in the musicality and materiality of language — both employed rhythm, rhyme, assonance, and alliteration with little regard for transparency, literalism or apparent intelligibility. Both men were visual song writers, capable of producing memorable images (like ‘semolina pilchards climbing up the Eiffel tower’).  Indeed, Lennon’s psychedelic songs — ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, ‘I am the Walrus’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ have much in common with Dylan’s cryptic compositions such as the surreal, ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’. And let’s not forget that critics compared Lennon’s wordplay, in his two slim volumes of published writings, to Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll.

Announcing the Beatles dream over in 1970, Lennon changed artistic direction, eschewing surreal wordplay for a starker, more direct approach to song writing, which he now saw as a form of catharsis (in the wake of his ‘primal scream’ therapy with Dr. Arthur Janov). According to his song, ‘God’, Lennon didn’t believe in Dylan anymore, and much else besides, and never returned to the playful surrealism of his youth, preferring to document his emotional life in more literal terms.

During his withdrawal from public life, Lennon produced two notable Dylan spoofs: ‘Serve Yourself’ and ‘Stuck Inside of Lexicon with the Roget’s Thesaurus Blues Again’. The first is a withering attack on Dylan’s Born-Again Christianity — Dylan released Slow Train Coming in 1979, and the first single unleashed on the unsuspecting public was a hell and damnation sermon entitled ‘You’ve Got to Serve Somebody’. Always adept at deflating other people’s pretensions and self-righteous posturing, Lennon adopts the persona of an unrepentant ‘scouse’ patriarch, venomously railing and ranting against the modern world, and taking an ill-tempered swipe at the his offspring. There’s more than a little of Monty Python’s ‘Four Yorkshire men’ sketch in this throwaway ditty.

The second number sees Lennon improvising a melody to newspaper articles — he begins with a story about Soviet ant-war protesters, and makes his way through several other topical stories.  Accompanied by a lone acoustic guitar, he mimics Dylan’s characteristic mid-western drawl, the voice is exaggerated, but the impersonation is credible and hilarious. Ironically, Dylan drew on newspaper stories for some of his most memorable protest songs like the ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, which is one of Dylan’s most sophisticated ‘protest’ lyrics. Lennon appears to poke fun at Dylan’s reputed verbosity, and the tendency for some fans to produce elaborate interpretations of apparently nonsensical lyrics. Armed with Roget’s Thesaurus, anyone can write in the manner of the surrealists, and where’s the art in that?

Lennon, as I’ve already pointed out, enjoyed playing with language, especially when he was a member of the Beatles. Later, he seems to have adopted a more romantic view of the written word, treating it as form of artistic expression, implying that it’s a, more or less, transparent mechanism for conveying one’s innermost feelings, giving form to trauma and recollected experience. But language doesn’t belong to the individual, it’s not something we possess, it doesn’t reside in human consciousness. It’s out there, out in the world — language plays with us, languages makes ‘sense’ and ‘non-sense.’ And as Lennon knew himself, there’s no reason why a song has to make ‘sense’ in order to succeed as a work of art. Conversely, it’s futile to try and stop people for looking for hidden meanings in song lyrics, or cereal boxes. We’re hard wired to look for meaning, to discern patterns, even if we are sometimes mystified by oxymoronic utterances, and intellectual aporias.

‘Here’s another clue for you all,’ Lennon sang on ‘Glass Onion,’ ‘the Walrus was Paul’. Of course, if you have Charles Manson reading your songs as coded exhortations to commit murder and mayhem in order to hasten Armageddon, then you might be just a little bit weary of over zealous readers, too. Much as I’d like to let things be, I can’t help but try and make sense of song lyrics, poems, prayers, TV commercials, and traffic signs. This is not to say I will read the same sign the same way twice, which brings me, finally, to ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.’  I’ve heard this song countless times, but I’ve never bothered to interpret its lyrics by subjecting them to close analysis. There are certain songs in Dylan’s corpus, I’ve memorised and subjected to close attention, but not this one. Until recently, I was content with my impressionistic sense of the song.

Oh, Mama, can this really be the end,

To be stuck inside of Mobile

With the Memphis blues again.

I’ve always felt I knew what Dylan was trying to say in the chorus, I thought its sentiment was clear: ‘I’m stuck nowhere, and I want to be somewhere.’  I first heard the song when I was a teenager living in Perth, Western Australia — the most isolated city in the world. I’d vaguely heard of Mobile. I knew it was located in Alabama, and assumed it was a remote backwater like Perth (it’s actually a much smaller than Perth). Probably populated by bigoted rednecks, it’s not the sort of place you’d want to be stuck, or so I thought. I felt stuck inside of Perth, and longed to migrate to somewhere exciting. Somewhere like Memphis. Memphis, in my adolescent mind, was the epitome of cool — home of Sun records, and adopted home of Elvis Presley.

Some of the greatest blues musicians cut their first records in Memphis — Howlin’ Wolf, for one. I loved the Wolf’s tough, gruff voice — he had tons of bad attitude, and sounded very much like the fearsome Canine that shared his name. Memphis was also home to older musicians, Furry Lewis, and Sleepy John Estes, rural folk that appeared on Harry Smith’s anthology. In the 1950s, B.B. King and a host of other electric blues luminaries plied their trade on Beale Street, a Mecca for the city’s black population. Memphis was also the home of rockabilly music — Sam Phillips, the owner, and house producer of Sun records, released the first discs made by Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Of course, I also knew the great Mississippi river ran through Memphis. This added to the allure of this most magical place. In short, Memphis was glamorous. And Mobile? Well, Mobile sounded like a trap, a box, a prison, short-sighted, and small-minded.

I also remember noticing the following couplet that emerged from the surreal verbiage, and stuck with me:

And here I sit so patiently

Waiting to find out what price

You have to pay to get out of

Going through all these things twice

If, like me, you find yourself making the same mistakes over and over again, this line will resonate strongly. The song, on closer inspection, seems to be dealing with circularity, repetition and entrapment. Perhaps Dylan felt trapped by his fame, or by the oppressively restricting expectations of his early audience — those earnest folkies who resented his electric music. Once again, it’s impossible to settle for any definitive interpretation. Does the song make sense? Is it Non-sense? For many years, I was content with the general impressionistic reading I’ve just outlined, secure in the belief that Dylan’s presentation of a series of surrealistic images didn’t warrant further investigation, and its affect was more important than its ‘meaning’.

Many obsessive Dylan fans will find my comments sacrilegious, especially those who subject his lyrics to close and thorough scrutiny. On the one hand, there are people like the notorious A.J. Weberman, the man who coined the term ‘Dylanology’. Weberman, a counter culture figure that championed Dylan’s early work, believes Dylan uses words in a manner that confounds their dictionary definitions, and published a book, Dylan to English Dictionary (2005), to substantiate this theory. Weberman contends that when Dylan uses the word, say, ‘rain’ he actually means ‘anger’. Weberman’s interest in Dylan’s secret symbolism drove him to sift through the songwriter’s garbage on a regular basis (when Dylan lived in Greenwich Village for a short period in the 1970s). Needless to say, Dylan found this intrusion into his personal life appalling, and reputedly kicked Weberman’s ass.

Literary critics like Christopher Ricks and Aiden use their scholarship and erudition to draw attention to the poetic qualities of Dylan’s verse. Christopher Ricks remarks that the rhyme in the refrain of ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile’, is:

beautifully metaphorical, because it’s a rhyme of the word “end” with the word “again” […] “End” and “again” are metaphorically a rhyme because every rhyme is both an endness and an againness. That’s what a rhyme is, intrinsically, a form of again (a gain ( a gain, too), and a form of an ending.[1]

Ricks’ close formal readings of Dylan’s lyrics are, at their best, as compelling as the songs themselves, and provide an insight into Dylan’s art that most casual interpretations miss. Clearly, there is more to Dylan’s craft than Lennon’s parody indicates, but a song always says more than its author knows. ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile’ walks by itself — it doesn’t need Lennon, Weberman, Ricks, or even Dylan to continue to move and inspire new interpretations and associations.

What does it mean to have the Memphis Blues? Is it a particular mood synonymous with the kind of music produced in the city of Memphis? Does it provide solace for those stuck inside places like Mobile? Maybe Dylan’s declaration is more about the depth of his sadness — akin to the sadness, or despair articulated in the Memphis blues — than it is about wanting to be in Memphis? I never entertained these possibilities until I realised the song had walked out of my past, all by itself.


[1] Christopher Ricks, Dylan’s Visions of Sin (London: Penguin, 2004) p. 32.