June 16, 2009KR BlogKR

June 16, 1965: Take 4

Talk about me, babe, if you must
Throw on the dirt, pile on the dust

– Bob Dylan, “It’s All Good,” Together Through Life, 2009

A few weeks ago, while wandering in the West Village, I stopped at Drougas Books (aka “Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books”) and bought a copy of Greil Marcus‘s Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads. The book begins, “In Columbia Records Studio A on 15 June 1965, the singer is trying to find his way into his song, plinking notes on the piano.” My first thought: that’s how poetry works. A writer tries out a phrase — a plinking, as it were — and then another, and then another. If she’s lucky, she hears something: a hesitancy, some non-received speech, a sentence-sound, a bit of music. She finds her way into her poem.

Reading Marcus’s 283-page “biography of a song” is a bit like taking a master class in imaginative writing:

As songwriting, what’s different about “Like a Rolling Stone” is all in its first four words. There may not be another pop song or a folk song that begins with “Once upon a time . . .” — that in a stroke takes the listener into a fairy tale, off the radio you’re listening to in your car or on the record player in your house, suddenly demanding that all the paltry incidents in the song and all the impoverished incidents in your own life that the song reveals as you listen now be understood as a part of a myth. . . .

Persian fairy tales traditionally begin, Yeki bud, yeki nabud — “There was one, there was not one; this happened, this did not happen.” Great art allows for twin tendencies: terror and solace; tragedy and comedy; reality and myth. It’s just a guy, you know. It’s also Napoleon in rags.

(It’s also a platform for lunatic explications:

“So who’s the ‘Napoleon in rags’ the girl in the song used to laugh at? The music is great, the words are a bunch of nonsense.”

“It’s obviously Dylan himself. ‘The language that he used.’ It’s like he’s putting down someone who didn’t like his songs.”

“He’s not that stupid. That can’t be it.”

“Yeah, so who is it if it’s not him?”

“I don’t know. Martin Luther King?”)

In “The Figure a Poem Makes,” Robert Frost writes, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” That’s a problem in composition; it may also be a problem in performance. Here’s Marcus: “The most damning words were the simplest: whenever he played a song, Dylan said, ‘I knew what was going to happen.'”

Somewhere, long ago, I read that Dylan knew he was on to something when he rhymed “didn’t you” with “kiddin’ you.” (I hope I’m remembering this correctly. I’ve told the story to either 136 or 142 million students.) Again, the artist is caught in the act of listening — to those plinking notes on the page, on the piano. Here’s more, from Marcus:

Dylan usually had the instincts, or the studied judgment, to avoid the momentary slang and contrived neologisms that would date his songs, box them up and turn them into artifacts. Perhaps because of his scholar’s sense of how folk ballads and early blues came together in the fifty years after the Civil War — sharing countless author-less phrases so alive to their objects (“forty dollars won’t pay my fine,” anybody could say that, and everybody did), that even when the phrases passed out of common usage they could communicate as poetry (“drink up your blood like wine,” not too many could get away with that, and not too many tried) — Dylan had a feel for making phrases of his own that no matter how unlikely

I got forty red white and blue shoestrings
And a thousand telephones that don’t ring

could seem not made but found.

If we accept Simone Weil‘s formulation that “attention is love,” then Marcus’s book is a great act of love. He finds, in “Like a Rolling Stone,” traces of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Will Bennett’s “Railroad Bill” (“Buy me a gun, just as long as my arm / Kill everybody, ever done me wrong”), Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” He gives the analogy-making part of his brain free license: “The arrival of the third verse, the announcement that the story is not over, is like Roosevelt announcing for a third term.” And he points us toward brilliant updates of the song, including Articolo 31’s “Come una Pietra Scalciata” (about which Marcus writes, “All sense of a put-down, of a sneer, has been erased as if it never was — if it ever was”) and Jimi Hendrix‘s rearranged and laughter-fueled version at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. (Don’t miss Hendrix’s introduction, in which he says, “I want to do a little thing by Bob Dylan, that’s his grandma over there,” pointing to Noel Redding, his unfazed bassist.)

But back to those plinking notes on the piano. On June 15, 1965, Dylan and his studio players took a few stabs at the song. The following day — forty-four years ago — on the fourth take (out of fifteen), they got it right.