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Friday, 3 July 2009

Robinson on Dylan

Peter Robinson writes on Bob Dylan's ‘Back in the Rain’


Protesting too much, the Biograph (1985) notes on the out-take recording of ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ include twenty-four lines of irritated outburst from Bob Dylan about what interpreters (‘Stupid and misleading jerks’) have made of his work. Though he does get on to the question of whether he has been playing roles and reinventing himself over the years, the beginning and end of this passage both confront the notion that Dylan has at times been an autobiographical and a confessional ‘poet’ in his song-writing career:

You’re A Big Girl Now well, I read that this was supposed to be about my wife. I wish somebody would ask me first before they go ahead and print stuff like that. I mean it couldn’t be about anybody else but my wife, right?

To clinch his point, and he does have one, Dylan ends by admitting that he did once write a song straight from life:

I don’t write confessional songs. Emotion’s got nothing to do with it. It only seems so, like it seems that Laurence Olivier is Hamlet … well, actually I did write one once and it wasn’t very good — it was a mistake to record it and I regret it … back there somewhere on maybe my third or fourth album.

That looks like a reference to ‘Ballad in Plain D’ from his fourth record, Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964), a song only too plainly appearing to give a blow by blow account of his final break-up with Suzie Rotolo. Yet what’s wrong with ‘Ballad in Plain D’ is not that it is confessional, whatever we decide to understand by that slogan from the poetry wars of the 1950s and 60s, but that it is shamelessly vengeful, particularly towards Suzie Rotolo’s mother and sister: ‘Each one of them suffering from the failures of their day’ and ‘For her parasite sister, I had no respect, / Bound by her boredom, her pride to protect.’ Not surprisingly the singer announces that when she shouts ‘Leave her alone, God damn you, get out!’ he nails her ‘to the ruins of her pettiness.’ Such self-righteous gestures immediately rebound upon the singer and Dylan had the self-critical intelligence to note the fact. Yet, it is equally unsurprising that when he remarks on the idea that he might or might not be a confessional writer, he calls up an analogy from the most famous revenge tragedy of them all — one in which the protagonist spends much of his time on stage anxiously quizzing himself about the rights and wrongs of the revenge he has been ‘born’ to perform.

Dylan does have a point about his songs not being strictly or literally autobiographical, and we should not expect to be able to extrapolate emotional facts about his life from his songs. As he notes, even the emotions, however convincing and affecting, are being performed: a good singer is also an actor. Nevertheless, ten years earlier, speaking not long after Blood on the Tracks (1975) had been released, he made rather a different point about it: ‘A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that … I mean, it, you know, people enjoying the type of pain, you know?’ Here he seems to be announcing that there is a raw emotion about the record, that the tracks on the LP do have his, and not only his, blood on them. Looking back on this much-praised return to form from the mid-1970s, I find myself reflecting that this is where Dylan’s art and life became so deeply tangled up in blue that he found himself out of his own depth, going down in his own flood, or, as ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ puts it: ‘you are on dry land’ but ‘I’m back in the rain.’

The results of an artist being out of his or her own depth are likely to be mixed, showing glimpses of fresh profundity and insight buffeted by instances of helplessness and uncertainty. What reinforces this sense of a serious artist in serious difficulties is the fact that the released album — in the light of what has emerged about its recording and revision — reveals a decisive act of withdrawal, one not publicly acknowledged by Dylan (who may still believe that his judgment was right when in late 1974 he pulled six earlier takes from the running order and re-recorded them in Minneapolis). When the earlier version of ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ was officially made public, some ten years after it had been widely bootlegged, the Biograph notes did tell a version of what happened:

‘Blood on the Tracks was another one of those records we went in and did in three or four days,’ Dylan commented. ‘I had the acetate. I hadn’t listened to it for a couple of months. I didn’t think I’d got this song off. The record still hadn’t come out, and I put it on. I just didn’t … I thought the songs could have sounded differently, better, so I went in and re-recorded them.’

The compiler of these notes does, however, notice that when ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ was re-cut ‘the lyrics and the mood of the song had changed.’ Dylan has also said about this album (in 1978) that ‘I didn’t perform it well. I didn’t have the power to perform it well. But I did write the songs’. To my ear and taste, the evidence doesn’t entirely support this remark. Of course he wrote ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’, but during September 1974 in the Columbia studios, New York, Dylan also knew how to perform it well, knew that to perform it well he didn’t need power, but delicacy. 25 September is the date of the recording given on the Biograph notes; but Clinton Heylin’s researches tell a more complex story: the song appears to have been first recorded on 17 September with Dylan performing on acoustic guitar and harmonica, Tony Brown on bass and Paul Griffin on keyboards. 25 September is likely the day that Buddy Cage’s pedal steel guitar was overdubbed onto the earlier take.

The performance starts quietly with just Dylan’s guitar in what is probably an open-E tuning. Certainly the song is played in the key of E, and with changes different to the released album version. The bass comes in after ‘Our conversation was short and sweet’ and accompanies Dylan and guitar for the rest of the first verse:

It nearly swept me off-a my feet.
And I’m back in the rain, mm-mm,
And you are on dry land, mm-mm,
You made it there somehow
You’re a big girl now.

The first two lines of the song present an ambiguous situation, which is expressed by a shift from the securities of the tonic E to its relative C sharp minor: ‘Our conversation was short and sweet’. This is repeated for line two: ‘It nearly swept me off-a my feet.’ Then to an E (‘And I’m back in the rain’) and to A (‘mm-mm’) and to E ‘And you are on dry land’ to A (‘mm-mm’), then to C sharp minor (‘You made it there somehow’), then through a G sharp minor to B and from B back to E (‘You’re a big girl now’). The music then pauses back on the dominant B, before returning to its shifting predicament for another verse. The effect is one of floating the lyric situation between gently fluctuant modulations, with an overall uncertainty about how things will resolve themselves.

Though to be swept off your feet usually means to be falling head over heels in love, here it announces the beginning of a problem between the singer and the ‘you’ of the title. Whatever it was they said to each other has put her in a position of security while he’s ‘back in the rain’ — a phrase that reverberates through some of Dylan’s major songs of the sixties: being ‘lost in the rain in Juarez’ from ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ or where ‘Louise holds a handful of rain’ in ‘Visions of Johanna’ or, most relevantly, ‘Nobody feels any pain / Tonight as I stand inside the rain’ from ‘Just like a Woman’ — most relevantly because ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ signals a contrast with the final line of the last chorus to that song: ‘But you break like a little girl.’

The organ enters at the beginning of the second verse, as if singing the song of the ‘Bird on the horizon, sittin’ on a fence’. The intimacy of this recording makes the use of the second person singular extraordinarily moving, and when he says that he’s ‘just like that bird, o-oh, / Singin’ just for you’, we, hearing him singing, can believe it. The overdubbed steel guitar doesn’t enter until the beginning of the third verse, and to get a sense of what the song sounded like when he recorded it, you have to try and imagine it without that high, swooping whine. Whatever Dylan came to think of the music that he achieved on this recording, one of his admirers clearly liked it and set about taking it as a model for what she might do next: the sound of Joni Mitchell’s single best album, Hejira (1976), adapts the open-tuned guitar tone, the bass turned up high on the mix, and, for some tracks, the swooping steel guitar.

The third verse, the one first accompanied by the overdubbed guitar is, in fact, the fourth verse as printed in the lyrics (and as sung on the Minneapolis recording):

Love is so simple, to quote a phrase,
You’ve known it all the time, I’m learnin’ it these days.
Oh, I know where I can find you, oh, oh,
In somebody’s room.
It’s a price I have to pay
You’re a big girl all the way.

The printed lyrics are not very accurate in their attempts to represent the highly articulate sounds that aren’t words Dylan is singing on this recording. The first thing not represented is that he sings equivalents of that ‘oh, oh’ at the ends of the third and the fourth line. In the first verse, he sings two beautifully modulated ‘mm-mms’; in the second verse, he sings ‘o-oh’ followed by an ‘mm-mm’. In this third verse, he repeats this pattern, singing ‘where I can find you, o-oh’ and ‘somebody’s room, mm-mm’.

The pedal steel guitar’s coming in on these lyrics aptly recalls the idiom of Nashville Skyline (1969). Yet the development of this quiet opening, superficially like ‘Love is all there is, it makes the world go round’ from ‘I Threw It All Away’ leads to the painful recognition on the singer’s part that the ‘you’ of the song has always known that love is simple in the sense that it’s to be had quite casually, all over the place. He can find her ‘in somebody’s room’ because she is having an affair with one or more other people, and this knowledge is the price he has to pay, but to pay for what? In this original recording that hanging question is implicitly answered in the fourth verse he sings:

Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast
Oh, but what a shame that all we’ve shared can’t last.
I can change, I swear, mm-mm,
See what you can do, mm-mm-mm,
I can make it through,
You can make it too.

The printed lyrics give ‘a shame if all we’ve shared can’t last’, but Dylan sings ‘that’ in both officially available studio recordings: what they have shared can’t last, anyway, however they behave, because ‘Time is a jet plane’. But just as we might ask what the price is to be paid for, so we might ask why he needs to swear that he can change if there is nothing that she might think wrong with his behaviour. The implication is that he’s learning that love is so simple these days both because he can find her in somebody’s room, and because she can find him in somebody else’s room too. He can change, he says, suggesting perhaps that he can put such behaviour behind him; and he asks her to see if she can do the same. He can make it through, in the sense that the pain caused by her behaviour is not so much as to drive him out of the relationship altogether, and he hopes in the last line of the verse that the same is true for her. The final verse then begins with a question that is implicitly answered only by the style in which he inflects the song.

‘A change in the weather is known to be extreme / But what’s the sense of changing horses in midstream?’ Yes, there can be extreme changes in the weather, from warm to freezing cold, but the thing about the weather is that after a few years on earth we get used to the idea that the warmth will return after some months. However, ‘But what’s the sense in changing horses in midstream?’ looks like a question being asked out of Roger McGuinn’s ‘Chestnut Mare’ (alluded to on ‘Idiot Wind’, the next track in the album sequencing) but also from the middle of Heraclitus’s river — the one you can’t step in twice. Time is flowing like a jet plane, and they are in the middle of their lives together, so why change horses and, for that matter, riders? This is as near as we get in the song to a clear declaration that the singer doesn’t want the relationship to come to an end, but this feeling is underlined by the sadly-dropping pitch with which he sings the song’s final line: ‘Ever since we’ve been apart.’

The first version of this song is among the most delicately moving pieces of singing that Dylan has ever committed to tape and allowed, if belatedly, to be released. Whatever the rights and wrongs, the truths or falsehoods, of the situation upon which this song may or may not be based, the performance convincingly presents a person who is in a long-standing relationship with a woman, but one which has got into difficulties because of likely infidelity on both sides. The singer regrets that the possible consequences of this development could well be terminal for the relationship. The performance comes over as a message sung ‘just for you’, as if indicating that he would dearly like to get out of the rain and back onto some dry land with her. In ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’, he sings ‘Maybe I’m too sensitive, or else I’m gettin’ soft’. For my taste, this performance of ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ is neither too sensitive, nor soft; but it is possible that the overdubbed steel guitar adds a layer of country-style emotion to the recording that could be thought schmaltzy: ‘I was fighting sentimentality all the way down the line’, Dylan also said of this album in 1978. Certainly, when he came to re-cut the song on 27 December 1974 in Minneapolis, any trace of sentiment had been firmly pushed into the background.

In the case of ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’, the rewriting of the lyrics was minimal, but the reordering of the verses, and the change in the way the words are inflected partly brought about by the recasting of the chord sequences makes all the difference to the ‘mood’. Clinton Heylin reports in Behind Closed Doors: The Recording Sessions 1960-1994 (1996) that by the time Dylan entered the studio in Minneapolis he had already told CBS to ‘pull’ the original album, and as a result there was ‘no going back’. He had to release the new recordings. I don’t quite see why this would follow: couldn’t he have telephoned New York and simply said that the re-recording had not been a success and he now wanted to go back to the earlier takes? What seems most likely is that he had decided definitively against the original sound of half the album and wanted something harsher. The first thing to note about the later recording of ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ (which Heylin describes, correctly, as ‘a mere reflection of the ghost of a pale shadow of its New York predecessor’) is that it begins with a studied, not to say pedestrian, play-through of an entire verse. Was Dylan rehearsing the band here, and then just decided to kick into the verse because it sounded together? But does it? There is a piano (Dylan perhaps playing), two guitars or more, a bass, and a drummer rather up front on the mix who is doing his level best to hold the rickety ensemble to a single time. Dylan sings the lyrics with much more aggression: the ‘you’ has been pushed into a role something nearer to the ‘You got a lot of nerve’ of the 1965 ‘Positively Fourth Street’. By the time we get to ‘hear me singing through these tears’, it’s by no means clear if these are tears of grief about what’s happened or rage at the ‘you’ he no longer seems to be ‘singing just for’. The deployment of the ‘angry’ Dylan voice presupposes the effect of his sound on the ears of other listeners out there.

The song is now being played in the key of G. It begins with a suspended minor descent from B minor to A minor (‘Our conversation was short and sweet’), which is repeated for the second line, and resolved onto the tonic G for ‘Now I’m back in the rain’. Then there’s the wordless wail again on a B minor descent to a C and G change for ‘you are on dry land’, repeated for the next line ‘you made it there somehow’, except that it shifts from C to Am, rising to Bm through C to the tonic G for ‘you’re a big girl now’, and the music then pauses for another round by slipping to the dominant D (a pausing between verses taken over from the September version in E). The effect of this musical rewrite is to portion out the parts of the lyric to more clearly articulated modulations, as if pinning the pointed shifts of attitude to more distinct musical positions. Instead of the lyric being floated equivocally across some melodic love-song changes reminiscent of 1950s pop standards, it is hung out to dry on harshly played sharply defined minor suspensions, resolving themselves in the position-taking would-be securities of the major chords. The effect is underlined by the harmonica chorus at the end in which Dylan is played a blues crossed-harp (using a D harmonica in the key of G so that you blow where you would usually suck and vice-versa). The effect is expressively harsh — quite at odds with the melodic playing of what seems like an E harmonica for a song in the key of E on the September take.

The note of anger and hurt is increased by the non-words he sings at the end of only the third line. Now there is nothing tight-lipped or intimate about the noises he utters; they are open-mouthed shouts of the ‘Ooooh-aargh’ variety. The change of the verse order also decisively alters the story that the song has to tell. By singing the ‘Time is a jet plane’ verse before the ‘I know where I can find you’ verse, the singer appears to make his conciliatory offer (‘I can change, I swear, / See what you can do’) before he announces that he can find her making love with someone else. The effect of this, in the angry tone with which he registers the fact, is to imply that he’s given her a chance but, you know, she’s incorrigible: you only have to turn your back and there she is going ‘all the way’ with somebody else. Now the last verse’s unanswered question rings rather differently. He still says he’s against the idea of permanently separating and changing partners, but his anger and bitterness indicate that however painful being apart is, perhaps it’s the only thing that they can do? A song delivered in a mood of reconciliation has been recast as one with an angry assertion of deep hurt. Rather than an attempt to ‘change’, the song now sounds as if it constitutes yet one more blow struck in the continuing battle.

Despite the existence of a low-key, regretful and curtailed version of ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ from 1996 that includes, once again, a pedal steel guitar and swelling organ, this song may never have recovered from its conceptual reshaping. The Rolling Thunder performance of the song released on the live album Hard Rain (1976) has a similarly ponderous arrangement, with Dylan dropping down a full third for the final note of each verse — a sneering mockery of the ‘now’, the ‘tears’, the ‘make it too’, the ‘all the way’ especially, and the ‘apart’, which turns the song into an anthem of sarcastic rejection for a woman who may once have seemed to ‘break like a little girl’, but is now a ‘big girl’ to the point of inflicting the hurt that is supposed to have brought the relationship to this sorry pass.

A major weakness of the ‘power’ versions of the song is that they play down to effective disappearance the implication in ‘I can change’ — a confession that the singer has got some other people’s rooms to be found in himself. The first recording of the song is not vengeful, because in its conciliatory mood, it goes so far as to suggest that the singer might not be the only one hurt by all this. The remake of ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ leans back on the cliché of Dylan the singer of tough, put-down music. The end result is that both the song and, as a consequence, the singer have to pay the price in a fatal loss of credibility. Of all Dylan’s albums damaged by misjudgments at the editing and assembling stage, Blood on the Tracks is the one that most cries out for a variorum CD edition giving both the album as released and the full set of outtakes and earlier versions, many of which have now been officially scattered on retrospective compilations. Still, in the absence of such an artifact, and grateful for all the oh small mercies, admirers of ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ do have its 17 September 1974 version, with the overdubbed pedal steel, to remind them just how good he has been.

Peter Robinson is a leading British poet. He is also a musician and widely published scholar and academic.
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