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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Bob Dylan: The Times They Are A-Changin'

BOB DYLAN: THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN' (1964)

1) The Times They Are A-Changin'; 2) Ballad Of Hollis Brown; 3) With God On Our Side; 4) One Too Many Mornings; 5) North Country Blues; 6) Only A Pawn In Their Game; 7) Boots Of Spanish Leather; 8) When The Ship Comes In; 9) The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll; 10) Restless Farewell.

One thing that most people have always felt about Dylan to the near-point of certainty is his ego­centric nature. Behaviorally haughty, instinctively condescending, and in addition to all that, to­tally closed to outsiders — where «outsiders» would begin with the closest friends and relatives and end with everybody else. This is more or less common knowledge, but I have to bring it up because ever so often, caught up in one or another side of Dylan's artistic personality, we forget that we can never be sure of when exactly we are dealing with the «true» Dylan.

It is probably safe to say that «Dylan the folk protest singer», much like «Dylan the newborn Christian» fifteen years later, was essentially a mask that he agreed to wear for a certain period of time, as long as it was helping him with his artistic career. «Mask» does not quite nearly equal «fake», mind you: there is no reason not to believe that, on some level, Bob did sympathize for people like Hollis Brown or Hattie Carroll — and there is every reason to believe the spite and contempt that the man had both for the powers-that-be, as brutally as he is lashing against them on ʽWith God On Our Sideʼ, and for the «mothers and fathers», as gleefully as he is condemning them to the trashbin of history on ʽThe Times They Are A-Changin'ʼ. But sympathizing is one thing, and pledging one's faith is another — The Times They Are A-Changin' is not an album made by a loyal soldier of the Pete Seeger regiment, even if the uninitiated did not understand it all that well back in early 1964.

The decision to release an «all-out» protest song album was quite conscious, and symbolically il­lustrated by the sleeve photo — quite far removed from the clumsy shyness of The Freewheelin', Bob is now trying to put on the look of somebody who has just emerged out of a sweatshop, or, at least, spent his entire childhood collecting Woody Guthrie photos and memorabilia. Again, though, the somber look on his face as he so explicitly looks down upon the evil exploiters (in­cluding everyone who sells and buys his own records) is not particularly «fake» — this is, after all, a great opportunity to indulge in his favorite passion: putting people down, whether it be for his own sake or for the greater good of the planet in general.

The only problem is that, having consciously narrowed down this scope and played out in favor of this particular image, Bob — almost predictably so — did not manage to come up with a sui­tably great bunch of songs. Many of them were, in fact, created already at the time of or even way before The Freewheelin', and some are downright simple rewrites: ʽBoots Of Spanish Leatherʼ, as it is very easy to notice, is essentially the same song as ʽGirl From The North Countryʼ. Like­wise, it is hardly a coincidence that the overall number of tunes here is smaller than on Free­wheelin', while the average length of a single composition has increased by almost a whole mi­nute — something quite typical for a situation of «creative blockage».

Three songs still stand out as major/minor classics. The title track sits here in the same place that was earlier occupied by ʽBlowin' In The Windʼ: its face is more stately, its voice is louder, and its message is far more blunt and unambiguous — blushy shyness being replaced by Biblical thunder as the prophet makes the transition from the liberal-minded salon into the open space of the town market square. It must have taken some gall to write and record a song like that, but someone had to do it, particularly if that someone had to live up to the «generation spokesman» tag (which Bob openly claims to have hated, but ʽThe Times They Are A-Changin'ʼ could only have been written with that specific tag in mind, whether he had already been assigned it or not). The song has nei­ther the depth nor the subtlety of his greatest creations — but it has certainly gone «beyond your command». The guitar may be raggedy and a little out of tune, the lyrics may borrow one too many clichés from the Prophets, and the message may seem less and less pleasant to baby boo­mers as they become grandfathers, but what can we do about it? It's a fucking symbol now, one of those near-ideal generational anthems.

Within the context of the album, though, I think that it is ʽWhen The Ship Comes Inʼ that makes the greater impact — the only song to break up the dirgey bleakness and monotonousness and to shower the curses on the heads of Bob's enemies in a faster, more playful (and, therefore, a little more sadistic) mode: inspired by Jenny's pirate tune in The Threepenny Opera and an accident where Bob was refused hotel admission for not being clean enough, it is the most gleefully dan­ceable of Bob's protest songs, and probably the one that his Jewish ancestors would be the most proud of, not just because it namedrops Goliath and the Pharaoh among those who will be crushed when the ship comes in, but also because, of all those early songs, it is the only one that gives the listener a clear vision of that happy end we're all hoping for. And it's catchy, too, but what wouldn't be catchy if it were inspired by Threepenny Opera?

The rest of the social / political songs on the album rarely reach these highs, not just because they are lyrically much more tied in with specific cases and particular situations, but also because they simply happen to be too drawn out and dreary. ʽWith God On Our Sideʼ gives you nine verses of irony when one could easily do with just three or four — the melody is boring, the energy level is low, and the lyrics are extremely questionable in the light of Bob's usual standards (I have always thought that the verse about the Germans was particularly poorly thought out — do the lines "though they murdered six millions... the Germans now, too, have God on their side" imply that the correct alternative would have been to wipe the Germans off the face of the Earth, once and for all? Probably not, but that is one of the easiest interpretations).

ʽThe Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carrollʼ has more direct involvement on Bob's part, and would have probably made a great impact had it been performed on the day of the William Zantzinger trial (August 28, 1963), but, at the risk of understating its importance for the history of anti-racist struggle in the US, I would dare say that the song is quite boring on the whole, and that its slow, stuttering, droning verses have nothing even close to the fist-clenching effect that a song like ʽHurricaneʼ would produce more than a decade later — even if, as a person, Hattie Carroll might be deserving more of our empathy than Ruben Carter (if anything, merely for the fact that Hattie Carroll is dead and Ruben Carter is not). The lyrical description of the woman's murder and of the rigged trial, and the acid condemnation of those who «philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears» is brilliant — the execution seems way too poorly thought out (although, of course, there are quite a few Dylanologists that would be happy to fight that idea).

In any case, the best song on The Times They Are A-Changin' happens to be one of the few that completely lack any sociopolitical undercurrent — it is also the shortest and, at first, least noticeable of these tunes, still completely in the vein of the «humble mumble» of Freewheelin'. ʽOne Too Many Morningsʼ (Steve Jobs' favorite song, no less!) has only three verses, a barely audible fingerpicking melody that rolls out far more smoothly from under Bob's fingers than the scrapy, wobbly strum of ʽThe Times They Are A-Changin'ʼ, and a beautiful melancholic aura — I like to think of it as a sequel to ʽDon't Think Twiceʼ, in which our hero contemplates the choices he has made and feels a little guilty and repentant about it, all the while being extra careful to not let us understand this directly. But even if not, it is still the most personal and deeply human tune on the whole album — even more so than the closing ʽRestless Farewellʼ, where Bob once again dons the travelin' minstrel cap and sings a well-meant, but formulaic dinner ballad for the king and his court.

On the whole, The Times They Are A-Changin' is a misstep — the only time in Bob's entire career, perhaps, when he went ahead and delivered an album that somebody expected him to de­liver: an artistic mistake he would never repeat again. But considering that he was still young, fresh, full of creative juices, energy, and invigorated with his success in «the right circles», it is also no wonder that the record is listenable, contains no major embarrassments (if one discounts the superfluous song lengths and a few lamentable lyrical slip-ups), and still has a bunch of clas­sic songs that rank all the way up there with his best. For these reasons, I would rather resist the temptation of giving it a thumbs down — even the worst Dylan record of the 1960s is still an es­sential listen for everybody who has a basic interest in the man. Besides, as a social stimulus — a musical protest statement — it certainly worked back in 1964, and might as well continue wor­king for a long time, as long as the English language doesn't change too much.

Check "The Times They Are A-Changin'" (CD) on Amazon
Check "The Times They Are A-Changin'" (MP3) on Amazon

8 comments:

  1. I'm glad you've "mellowed out" about this one, George, but I still think you don't do full justice to the power of this album. Subtle it mostly isn't, but I for one have never heard any collection of songs as politically blunt and at the same time so artistically accomplished as this one - except possibly some things by the Pogues. I am no Christopher Ricks fan but his chapter on "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" in "Dylan's Visions of Sin" is a thing of beauty, and really brings out why the song works (for many of us, anyway).

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  2. There's some great songs on here but I tend to agree that the record is a snoozer. To these ears it sounds like Dylan was already bored with this and wanted to move on. My faves are One Too Many Mornings and When Your Ship Comes In but outside of the horror story that is Ballad Of Hollis Brown (which I like a lot) most of the longer songs just actually kinda boring. Still worth a listen although I give it a B- (and graded favorably for historic purposes)

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  3. For some reason every band in the 60's tried to cover Times They Are A-Changin', and all their covers sucked.

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  4. The first of many albums where he shelved songs superior to a lot of tunes on the album. "North Country", "God", "Farewell" and "Pawn could be replaced by Seven Curses, Eternal Circle, and especially Lay down your weary tune. Maybe throw in the Explicitly Guthrie-esque but upbeat Paths of Victory.

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  5. Off topic but few people have ever been as guilty as Reuben "Hurricane" Carter. Try this site for starters: http://www.graphicwitness.com/carter/

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  6. I'll make my usual album cover comment. Nice analysis, obably one of my least favorites (right down there with Self-Portrait & the "official" Saved covers)in the collection. Not only does he look disgusted with the mass of humanity (like you said, his favorite passtime), he looks unhealthy and gaunt, but at least no cigarette is danging from his mouth. (I know it's peavish, but 60s photographers' need to show all musicians puffing away always turned me off)

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    1. Well, from what I've seen from archival footage, in the 60s not only musicians, but *everybody* was puffing away constantly.

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  7. You've made me discover One Too Many Mornings. It's a gorgeous song. Thanks for the pleasure of reading great reviews and discovering great music.

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