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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Bob Dylan: John Wesley Harding


1) John Wesley Harding; 2) As I Went Out One Morning; 3) I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine; 4) All Along The Watchtower; 5) Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest; 6) Drifter's Escape; 7) Dear Landlord; 8) I Am A Lonesome Hobo; 9) I Pity The Poor Immigrant; 10) Wicked Messenger; 11) Down Along The Cove; 12) I'll Be Your Baby Tonight.

Most of the ink, both analog and digital, spilt over John Wesley Harding since its appearance in late 1967 / early 1968, has been spilt with benevolence and admiration, with the few dissenters deservedly going to Hell. However, to my deep surprise, I have never yet encountered a review or general discussion of this record that would really hit me where it feels sharpest. Maybe that makes me a particularly special kind of «Dylan nutcase» — wouldn't that be flattering, actually? — and if so, feel free to ignore the strong sentiments below. But they are strong, and have been that way for about two decades, and this is nothing to laugh about.

The story itself is known fairly well: Dylan recuperates, goes back to business, returns to Nash­ville, enlists the minimal aid of Blonde On Blonde vets Charlie McCoy (now on bass) and Ken­ny Buttrey on drums, plus steel guitarist Pete Drake on two tracks, cuts a fourty-minute, twelve-song LP in less than twelve hours (to the huge surprise of his backers), makes a Christmas release that stumps, then delights critics and fans alike: Dylan going back to his «roots»! and this time, with a noticeable «country» rather than «folk» flavor! and in the middle of the psychedelic craze and all! Then, next year, we have The Band, The Byrds, and even The Beatles following suit, and the «roots-rock revolution» is underway: yet another lever in the popular conscience pulled hard by the mysterious Mr. Zimmerman.

But, of course, as arrogant and self-centered as Mr. Zimmerman has always been, he was hardly likely to think of himself as the harbinger of yet another revolution when he entered that Nash­ville studio once more. What is much more likely is that, in his usual manner, he simply wanted to derail the public — there they are, all waiting for yet another rock'n'roll explosion à la High­way or the next whacky soul trip à la Blonde On Blonde, so, naturally, the right thing to give them is something that couldn't be farther removed from these expectations: who are all these people, daring to hope that The Artist will condescend to their predictable tastes? The day The Artist allows himself to be pigeonholed is the day he dies, and now that God himself has changed his mind and postponed that, all the more reason to become twice as confounding.

That must have been the planned intention, and it does not interest me all that much. What is far more bewildering is the side effect that John Wesley Harding has on some people — like my­self, who believes that the record, by far, transcends the formulaic limitations of «country-rock» and, together with Blonde On Blonde, taps into something much deeper, much less understandable and expressable. It is not just an album about going back to one's roots, nor is it a limited-issue album about some sort of nostalgia for the Old West, as some have proposed. But what is it, exactly — I am still not sure of it myself.

You put on the record, and it starts out with some unassuming, though lively, acoustic strumming and an equally unassuming "John Wesley Harding was a friend to the poor...". Now that looks pretty much like just a normal kind of folk stylization — Bob's take on the «friendly outlaw bal­lad» genre. Let alone the fact that the real John Wesley Hardin was more of a psychopathic killer than a «friend to the poor»: none of that matters, since most outlaw ballads idealize their prota­go­nists (what do we know about the real Robin Hood?), so Bob is just following tradition — be­sides, if pressed real hard against it, he could always reasonably retort that his John Wesley has an -ng rather than an -n in his family name, so "no charges against him could they prove".

But that is not the point — the point is that ʽJohn Wesley Hardingʼ, the song, is like one of those dazzling optical illusions, something that shifts from one opposite to the other before your very eyes without any noticeable conscious effort on the viewer's part. At one point in time, it is like a sincere, honest stylization. Then, with one carefully planted vocal twist or intentionally crude ly­ric, it seems to drift into parody and irony. Here it sounds like a respectable imitation; there it sounds like a sarcastic deconstruction. One bar of solo harmonica feels heroic — the next one rather gives a sense of the comical. You can sing along with a deadly serious expression, or you can do the same thing with a permanent grin on your face — it works both ways. At the end of the song, you might feel that the message has been delivered from the first to the last letter — or you might feel that there was no message in the first place.

Ridiculous as it might sound, I have even shed an occasional tear to this song — one of the most befuddling, incomprehensible tears in my life. Was it because the tune was so catchy, so well-rounded, so ideal in the simplicity and finiteness of its form? Was it because I had no idea of what I just heard, but felt strongly that I must have heard something, just couldn't put my finger on it? (and neither, perhaps, could the artist himself, even if pressed under torture to give out the truth?). Was it, in any way, related to the context of the times — this minimalistic, ascetic exer­cise in self-limitation, displayed in an age of sprawl and excess — or could it work the same way regardless of one's knowledge about said context? What are the extents and limits of this incom­prehensible mystique? Nope, I cannot answer any of that.

And that is all just about the first song, probably the least assuming / pretentious number on the entire first side of the LP. The following ones are not as tightly locked for comprehension, or, rather, you are simply allowed to make a few more steps down the corridor before you arrive at the same locked doors. This makes them into more usual candidates for discussion, debate, and hot-headed interpretations — but no final word has been pronounced on any of them either.

With ʽAs I Went Out One Morningʼ, the minimalistic approach begins to shows its potential for real — there is almost nothing to block the little zoops that Charlie McCoys plays on his bass, make the tune one of the few Dylan songs that are «owned» by the instrument. As usual, there has been plenty of debate over what exactly Tom Paine has got to do with stopping fair damsels running around in chains, but, frankly speaking, I have always regarded those lines ("as I went out one morning to breathe the air around Tom Payne's...") on the same level as "depart from me this moment, I told her with my voice", etc. — semi-improvised phrasing that helps organise and rhyme the lines, at the cost of some benevolently allowed linguistic and cultural crudeness which has always been an explicitly stated part of Dylan.

Anyway, once again, it is not really important what the man is singing — only how. Charlie's bass zoops, Bob's worried acoustic strum and the gravel in his voice, all of that has mystery and danger a-plenty, but you don't know where the danger is actually coming from. At the end of the song, you are somehow left in the middle of a Hitchcock movie — is it the «lovely girl» who is the bearer of the danger? is it Tom Paine? is it nobody in particular, and the whole thing is just a misunderstanding? or is it all about a general issue of fate? Whatever the answer be, here we have ourselves a pretty eerie slice of quiet darkness, and everyone can hang one's own name on it — it could be an allegory of the Vietnam War, for all I know. Or a prediction of 9/11. Do it yourself.

Joan Baez did not cover that one — too weird! — but she did do a good job on ʽI Dreamed I Saw St. Augustineʼ, a fairly accessible number in comparison. Bob didn't have to do much composing here — the melody and even the initial lyrics are rigorously based upon ʽI Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Nightʼ, and one could not even argue that he had much improved upon the original's pedestrian, but still well-chosen phrasing. However, Bob throws in one of those seductive Biblical components — the righteous loner against overwhelming odds — and gives the song an air of quiet, barely visible, but total killer desperation. Formally, it sounds nowhere near as bleak and misanthropic as... well, as about fifty percent of everything he'd done since Street Legal, but subtlety is always king, and ʽSt. Augustineʼ works on a much deeper level: above everything else, it does not whine, nor does it make a big point out of openly condemning anyone or anything, it is just unbelievably, devastatingly S-A-D in all of its elements.

The obvious question that occurs to everyone vaguely familiar with Christian history is — who are the mysterious «them» "that put him out to death", when it is well known that not only did St. Augustine die from natural causes in his own bed, but also that one cannot even take that figura­tively (since the guy still remains one of the Holy Fathers of the Church). The simple answer is that, just as in the case of John Wesley Hardin(g) and the travesties of his career, Dylan did not care — he just needed a trisyllabic name for a Holy Father, and «Augustine» worked quite well. The complex answer is that this is a «symbolic» St. Augustine, chosen out of many to represent the «righteous loner» image (which he did have in life), and, well, we all know that, as a rule of thumb, «righteous loners» don't last long and... well, you know. It is, however, curious, that for the first time in his life Dylan has the guts to align himself with the ignorant «them» rather than the rebellious «him» — and ask a little confessional pardon for it. Or maybe it's just another of the many clever ways for the dude to show off, I am not sure. But I am sure that every goddamn time I hear "...I put my fingers against the glass, and bowed my head and cried..." I am all but ready to do the exact same thing. The song just totally got me in its grip — like no Beatles song ever did or could hope to do.

Hendrix was the first among many to see the thunderstorming hard rock potential of ʽAll Along The Watchtowerʼ — and thank God he did, or it might have been picked up by Three Dog Night or Grand Funk Railroad instead. His is a grand and visionary interpretation, but do not let its loud­ness and technical dazzle overshadow the understated simplicity and sparseness of Bob's original. Dave van Ronk, Bob's old friend and mentor, used to openly criticize the song for its nonsense lyrics — which, as it happens, are nonsense if you string all of them together and try to look for cohesion, but work very well as a disjointed collection of phrasal sketches: lots of indi­vidual great lines ("businessmen they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth"), or at least appro­priately placed platitudes ("there are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke").

But of course van Ronk missed the main point — ʽAll Along The Watchtowerʼ is the best known and the most covered song off this album because it provides a unified emotional reaction to the largest amount of people: few will dare to deny its creepy pre-apocalyptic feel, in which it is se­cond only to ʽGimme Shelterʼ (actually, ʽGimme Shelterʼ is the Apocalypse happening before one's very eyes, so they are in complementary distribution on the subject), and its emotional power runs highest in between the verses, as those shrill harmonica sirens pierce your ears to McCoy's doom-and-gloom basslines.

Bob himself had commented on how ʽAll Along The Watchtowerʼ challenges time conveniences, having the «events» unfurl in reverse order, with the setting of the scene verse coming after the dialog — a brilliant move, actually, as it always seemed to correlate with an imaginary movie in my mind: camera focus on the «thief/joker» duo, then slowly, gradually zoom out onto the sur­roundings — "all the women came and went..." "...two riders were approaching..." This is, in fact, the normal way of life for Dylan: talking from a «petty» perspective that logically flows into a «grand» scheme of things. So, on second thought, there may be some cohesion here after all.

That one-two-three-four punch which I just described, to me, is the single awesomest streak of four-in-a-row album openers on any Dylan album, period — which is why, in comparison, the rest of John Wesley Harding, in relative comparison, has always seemed a little underwhelming to me. Underwhelming not because the other songs are «bad» or «uninspired», but because not all of them manage to uphold the same style of eerie mysticism. Worse, they do drift a little bit too close to concrete particularities — ʽI Am A Lonesome Hoboʼ and ʽI Pity The Poor Immigrantʼ are just the kind of material that earned Harding its «oh, it's the one where he sings about Old West colonization» status, even if, yes, the lyrics of ʽImmigrantʼ are probably one of his deadliest and sharpest bites of all time: a bite that, among other people, would certainly hurt the inhabitants of Bobby Zimmerman's own dear beloved town of Hibbing.

This is, however, merely to note that these songs are less mind-stimulating than others — on the other hand, ʽI Am A Lonesome Hoboʼ is great in how its whole melody and vocal delivery con­vey the «warning» idea of "hold your judgment for yourself lest you wind up on this road" be­fore the words are even spoken; and ʽI Pity The Poor Immigrantʼ is amazing in how the lyrics are so devastating, yet the singer does deliver them with visible pity in his voice — the same singer who, but less than three years ago, mostly used that same voice to reduce the objects of his critique to dust, salt, and vinegar.

On the other hand, ʽBallad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priestʼ, occupying twice as much space as the average track on the album, sort of outpulls the blanket in the other direction — its melody carries no mystery, serving only as a backdrop for Bob's convoluted pseudo-allegory. To me, that song has always played the role of a «red herring» on the album, which I would be perfectly ready to forgive if it weren't for all the people who actually admit to liking the song, as in, really liking from the heart — about which I'm not sure: a put-on, I think, is always a put-on. If any­thing, Bob's own conclusion ("Don't go mistaking Paradise for that home across the road!") should serve as an easily decipherable warning to all.

The situation is more difficult with the last two songs on the album, where Bob's little band is joined by steel guitarist Pete Drake and the merry foursome get carried away into straightahead country territory, first in a danceable mode (ʽDown Along The Coveʼ) and then in nighttime bal­lad mode (ʽI'll Be Your Baby Tonightʼ). Both songs are lyrically straightforward — way too straightforward, one might say, faced with "Down along the cove, I spied my little bundle of joy / She said Lord have mercy honey, I'm so glad you're my boy!" right after the head-bursting conundrum of ʽWi­cked Messengerʼ — and both, in their own way, act as a «preview» of the up­coming Nashville Skyline, although, of course, nobody knew that back in early 1968. Naturally, such an odd conclusion was intentional — the question is, does it work?

Well, I think nobody will ever want to put ʽDown Along The Coveʼ on one's list of Dylan favo­rites, but as a «gesture» of sorts, it does no harm sitting there next to the great stuff on John Wesley Harding. On the other hand, ʽI'll Be Your Baby Tonightʼ, I think, is simply a perfect conclu­sion to the album — closing it off on a thoroughly serene, nonchalant, not-give-a-damn note after all the troubles and premonitions. It captures a bit of that lazy, arrogant, and utterly charming Hank Williams atmosphere with just the barest of Hank Williams trappings, and none of that distinct Southern accent, either, which may act as a turn-off for all them elitist Yankees. It's insanely catchy, it's probably got the most melodic and perfectly controlled harmonica breaks on the whole record, and it just washes your worries away with two and a half minutes of gentle soul medicine — when was the last time, or when, for that matter, would there be a next time where Bobby would get us all so relaxed with such a finale?..

It is not advisable to choose John Wesley Harding for your first acquaintance with Dylan, no matter how much I, or anybody else, choose to gush over this stuff. Its minimalist trappings can turn one off, I think, even quicker than his completely bare-bones early acoustic albums — where the instrumentation was ascetic, but the ambitions were grand. John Wesley Harding, in compa­rison, is a true musical «Hermit's Hollow»: if I learned, one day, that the songs were recorded in a cave in the middle of a wild forest, rather than a cozy Nashville studio, with all the band mem­bers wearing loincloths and drinking nothing but clear water from the nearest brook, I wouldn't be the least surprised. On its initial run, I think, the album works best as a deliberate contrast with the 1965-66 stuff, and should probably be listened to in the evening, on headphones, for the ultimate effect. But eventually, it gets its own life, and I am fairly sure that with certain psychological types of people, it can lock on so tightly that a «best Dylan album ever» option will not be out of the question. In any case, it is in my personal «top 5» for Bob, meaning one of the highest thumbs up an album might get. Too bad he never made anything even remotely close to it in style — but then again, a wonder is a wonder, and one thing that makes it a wonder is that you cannot deliberately repeat it, and if you try, you either end up with a different kind of wonder — if you are that good — or you simply fail.

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  1. Dammit George. Now you're going to have me listening to John Wesley Harding all day. I used that have a cassette in college that had Blonde on Blonde in its entirety and the first 4 songs of John Wesley Harding. I wore that tape out completely and it made me a Dylan fan for life. Those JWH songs were what did it too...

  2. One of my favorite Dylan albums. I've always thought of it as the last volume of a loose tetralogy with the three preceding albums.

  3. like eating dust at times that album..i like tonight and cove.

  4. Spartan, laconic, ascetic... Like Hermann Hesse's "Steppenwolf".

  5. It amazes me how many people think of "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" as a UB40 song. Really, the cover doesn't hold a candle to the original. It has none of the laid-back, sepia-like tone that endears me as a listener. The cover's just white reggae-pop (and not the really good kind The Police made, I mean the boring kind).

  6. I got this one almost 20 years ago during my classic rock period, when I was into guys like Neil Young, Hendrix, the Who, etc. I had jammed to Hendrix's Watchtower for years and wanted to hear the original. I throw it on and was instantly underwhelmed. Blech. Boring. Incomprehensible. Watchtower especially irked me--typical whiny harmonica in place of Jimi's majestic sonic poetry. I forced myself to listen to it several more times over the next few weeks but nothing happened. It sat on my shelf for a few years until I purged my CD collection in the in the interest of expediency and thought little more about it for ten years.

    A few years back I was going threw a melancholic period of self-pity, which coincidentally paralleled a renewed interest in Dylan, and I "borrowed" from the library most of his catalog. I was listening to JWH at work one day and it just clicked. I had to release all the preconceptions, unlearn all the hype and criticism, and just take it at face value--not even the lyrics, but the imagery, both the implicit and explicit. Who the heck were Tom Paine, John W. Harding, Terry Shute, Frankie Lee, etc. etc.? As the wise little neighbor boy says in the ballad, "Nothing is revealed." Clearest words on the whole album.

    The self-pity part comes in because I was mourning my mysanthropic tendencies and realized that there is a lot of breast-beating and head-hanging in these songs, and the one that really killed me was I Am a Lonesome Hobo. His final warning "And hold your judgment for yourself,
    Lest you wind up on this road" spoke to me in a personal way that cannot be described here, but I realized I was that titular Hobo. And if I didn't change my ways, I too would be alone on the road.

    As always, great insight, and thanks for indulging my maudlin babbling. Here's my throat, thanks for the loan.

  7. Saw somewhere that the sound of this one was influenced by contemporary Gordon Lightfoot records- fair enough for the rhythm section, but whereas gord's 12 string acoustic would fill in the bottom very richly, Bob plays 6 string with capo often high on the neck- putting a lot of space between the guitar and bass. a whole different, very spare sound.

  8. That description of the title track is the most insightful I have ever read, and I agree 100% - thank you!