Quinn the Eskimo

This is something that doesn’t get touched upon very often – a really dumb Bob Dylan song. At their best, Dylan’s cryptic verses fell just on the right side of silly. This is one time he clearly overshot the line, and he knew it. It’s like he started out in his usual vein of poetic seriousness, then said ‘fuck it’, scribbled down a random chorus and wandered off. However, it also happens to be one of his catchiest songs, so it’s enjoyed a life of its own. It’s best known as a novelty Manfred Mann hit, but it’s been covered by a variety of notables. Sing-along choruses have never been Dylan’s bag – he’s not a crafter of pop hits – so this may well be the singiest Dylan chorus ever. Which he still, gleefully, performs in concert. Perhaps he really wanted to contribute something to the culture that was just silly and fun. Wearing the voice-of-a-generation hat all the time gets wearying, you know.

 

Queen Jane Approximately

This is Bob Dylan at the height of his lyrical cryptid phase. I honestly think that trying to parse Dylan’s lyrics is pointless and detracts from just enjoying the wordplay and the music, but I realize that for some people it’s a sport. I think Dylan just liked to use a lot of words. You should try to just feel the emotion of the song and not think too hard about what it ‘means’. Because this is a conversation that’s been going on for decades and it’s gotten boring. Also, I quite like this particular take of the song; it’s less…screechy?

Positively 4th Street

My first thought was, wow, I haven’t listened to this gem in so long. Second thought; wow, nobody writes a put-down like Bob Dylan. I know Dylan has a reputation for being grumpy, or catty, or whatever you wanna call it, and his diss tracks are notorious, but what really makes it brilliant is that he never stoops to just putting someone down. He rolls out an entire thesis of what’s wrong with that person and why. And even on his most famous ‘insult songs’ he’s not without sympathy. Some of those songs are obviously romantic goodbyes, but I don’t think that’s what this one is. I think it’s just about one of those situations where you used to be friends with someone but you’re not friends anymore, for whatever reason. Obviously, we have no way of knowing that for sure, or who the target may actually be, if there even is one. That only makes it more interesting and more relevant, though.

Pledging My Time

Here is an only moderately crappy video of late 90’s Bob Dylan performance. What’s interesting about it is this; has this always been a blues song and I just didn’t notice? Either way it works really well, although most blues songs don’t have quite as many words. It does show that too often, the persona of “Bob Dylan” has overshadowed the musicianship of Bob Dylan. Because the experience of hearing Blonde on Blonde as an album is all about the psychedelic intellectual journey, not the drier exercise of picking apart the musical structure of the songs. Of course, I’m coming at it as a non-musician, and for professional listeners I’m sure the experience is much more complex. But it is odd that on an album as familiar as this, I never actually noticed the musical styles and influences of the individual songs. It’s different to think of it as ‘Bob Dylan playing a blues song’ rather than a ‘Bob Dylan song that sounds like the blues.’ It’s a fine distinction.

Outlaw Blues

Bob Dylan fancies himself such an outlaw that he feels kinship with Jesse James. He’s so outlaw he’s got himself a “brown-skin” woman (but he loves her!) Also, sunglasses, possibly at night. All I can think is he’s gotta be kidding with this checklist of cool things and his cool image. Because he’s Bob Dylan and there’s no way he’d seriously equate wearing sunglasses with being an outlaw. (Because that’s dumb even by John Hughes movie standards.) See, Bob Dylan was sooo cool in his day that he was above the concept of coolness. He had nothing but contempt for poseurs and phonies who went around taking the measure of other people’s cool. Or maybe he was a little dweeby Jewish boy from Minnesota who secretly loved the hell out of being considered the coolest guy in town and postured really really hard to get there. Or maybe he was just a more-or-less regular normal dude all along and was really just baffled by how seriously he was being taken. Who knows; Dylan moves in mysterious ways.

Here’s some words.

Ain’t it hard to stumble
And land in some funny lagoon ?
Ain’t it hard to stumble
And land in some muddy lagoon ?
Especially when it’s nine below zero
And three o’clock in the afternoon.
Ain’t gonna hang no picturev
Ain’t gonna hang no picture frame
Ain’t gonna hang no picture
Ain’t gonna hang no picture frame
Well, I might look like Robert Ford
But I feel just like a Jesse James.
Well, I wish I was on some
Australian mountain range
Oh, I wish I was on some
Australian mountain range
I got no reason to be there, but I
Imagine it would be some kind of change.
I got my dark sunglasses
I got for good luck my black tooth
I got my dark sunglasses
I’m carryin’ for good luck my black tooth
Don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’
I just might tell you the truth.
I got a woman in Jackson
I ain’t gonna say her name
I got a woman in Jackson
I ain’t gonna say her name
She’s a brown-skin woman, but I
Love her just the same.
Songwriters: Bob Dylan
Outlaw Blues lyrics © Bob Dylan Music Co.

One of Us Must Know

Sooner or later, baby, one of us must know. Even Bob Dylan sometimes apologizes for being an ass. Given Dylan’s famously biting tongue, this is downright sweet. I always thought it had an almost pensive spirit, a sense of real emotion. Sometimes Dylan uses his wordplay and wit to make a sneak attack of something really affecting. Makes you think what, if anything, you would say to an old lover or a distant friend to smooth over old slights.

One More Cup of Coffee

I’ve always wondered where Bob Dylan thinks he’s going, and what he’s planning to do down in that valley. It feels like a fragment of some larger epic journey. There’s something heroic and tragic about it. He is on a quest of some kind; like Odysseus, he’s waylaid by a beautiful, mysterious stranger; she is a goddess with her own path to follow; who knows how long they’ve dallied together but now she must let him go. But first a little coffee for the road. It’s the mundane detail of the coffee that really makes the story – epic tales are nothing but bluster without the mundane to bring them to life. Now mind you, Bob Dylan doesn’t usually capture my imagination quite this way. Sure, plenty of his songs are epic and full of their own mythology, but they’re also willfully obtuse, jokey, satirical. It’s hard to interpret Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream as a hero quest; more like a buffoon’s comic picaresque. But this is a serious song here, a real hero quest, perhaps an allegory for the trajectory of life, perhaps just spilled over with sadness from a man freshly divorced. Anyhow you look at it, it’s a different level for Dylan. And, as with many of Dylan’s songs, other singers have hit it out of the ballpark, especially those with superior vocal abilities, i.e. Jack White, Robert Plant.