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.


One response to “Bob Dylan-Memphis Blues

  1. When I hear this song I’m first struck by the simultaneous, conflicting emotions in his singing and attitude. For me, that quality defines his greatest performances. On this song there is a lot of humor and whimsy but I also hear world-weariness and resignation. He sounds like a 24 year old who is riding a rocket and living too fast and it’s a hell of a lot of fun. The “mobile” mania is underlined by depression though. He is tired of living and it seems he has lived too long. He sees the repetition of everything but is powerless to change. I often wonder if he still remembers the mind of the kid who wrote this and other apocalyptic songs.

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