Saturday, July 21, 2007

Absolutely Sweet Marie

Well, your railroad gate, you know I just can't jump it
Sometimes it gets so hard, you see
I'm just sitting here beating on my trumpet
With all these promises you left for me
But where are you tonight, sweet Marie?

Well, I waited for you when I was half sick
Yes, I waited for you when you hated me
Well, I waited for you inside of the frozen traffic
When you knew I had some other place to be
Now, where are you tonight, sweet Marie?

What could there possibly be left to say about Bob Dylan's 1966 album Blonde on Blonde at this late date? Well, for one thing, the album meets one definition of a masterpiece: there's always something new to discover in it.

But more than that, Blonde on Blonde (like most of the Dylan discography) has been remastered by Sony -- successor to the original Columbia label -- for better sound quality. As usual, I'm late to the party, since the new edition has been out since 2003, but I'd never heard the sonically refurbished CD before.

It's been remixed three ways, although they're on different layers of the same disc: 5.1 Super Audio CD, stereo SACD, and plain old stereo. But whichever way your sound system permits listening to it, it's almost guaranteed you've never heard it in such clarity and detail.

Blonde 2

Dylan's nasal, midwestern-flat voice, occasionally leavened with country-ish vowels, is no more beautiful than it ever was, but its unique quality (as a friend of mine once said in its defense, "Well, it's Dylan's voice") is reproduced with greater accuracy. But it's the freshness and etching of the backing instruments that really grabs you. None of the session musicians are big names, except Al Kooper, who's on only a few tracks, and Robbie Robertson of The Band fame (credited on the original cover as "Jaime Robertson").

But wow, do they cook, and wow, can you hear them now. Details you probably never noticed consciously in the old record and CD versions get out there and strut. It's the aural equivalent of having your dusty and bug-splattered windshield cleaned -- the environment becomes more colorful and involving.

Originally issued as a two-record package, Blonde on Blonde seems to me one of the two supreme Dylan albums -- Highway 61 Revisited is the other. Sadly, he afterward went into a musical decline from which he has never recovered. John Wesley Harding, which followed Blonde on Blonde, had two or three great songs in a very different style and mood; Nashville Skyline was a pleasant trifle; after that, forget it. He still comes out with a new disc every few years, and the '60s fossils on NPR ritualistically fawn over it before it sinks into obscurity. I'll say this for Dylan, the man: at least he doesn't pretend to be an Important Force anymore. He seems to have found some kind of peace, keeps a low profile and doesn't go around heading benefit concerts to cool off the world.

But it 1966, Dylan was at his creative peak. Blonde on Blonde was a perfect amalgam of compelling songs and teasing lyrics.

When I acquired the remastered disc recently, I went right to my favorite song on it: "Absolutely Sweet Marie." It's not one that music critics, or even Dylan fanatics, seem to dote on. I've never heard a band do a cover version of it, and it's not remotely as famous as the lovely "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," another album highlight. But although every track is memorable, "Marie" still impresses me as first among equals for its melodic virtuosity and wild, surrealistic words.

Well, I got the fever down in my pockets
The Persian drunkard, he follows me
Yes, I can take him to your house but I can't unlock it
You see, you forgot to leave me with the key
Oh, where are you tonight, sweet Marie?

There's even a touch of classic, old-fashioned song format. Dylan varies the meter by including bridges between the choruses:

Well, I don't know how it happened
But the riverboat captain, he knows my fate
But everybody else, even yourself
They're just gonna have to wait.

Blonde 4

While Dylan's muse was still working full time, he had an uncanny gift for verse that's way-out-there quirky without being pretentiously absurdist. A constantly turning kaleidoscape of metaphors, his verses seem to make some higher, or at least poetic, sense. In fact, the literary figure Dylan (in the period that included Blonde on Blonde) reminds me of most is the early T.S. Eliot ("He laughed like an irresponsible foetus"; "Hidden under coral islands / Where worried bodies of drowned men drift down in the green silence / Dropping from fingers of surf").

Now, I been in jail when all my mail showed
That a man can't give his address out to bad company
And now I stand here lookin' at your yellow railroad
In the ruins of your balcony
Wond'ring where you are tonight, sweet Marie.

Do I overrate Blonde on Blonde because it was part of the soundtrack to my young life, a leitmotif that returned again and again in those heady days in 1960s Berkeley? Maybe: it was the best and the worst of times -- although in the end, it was mostly the worst of the '60s that contributed to today's toxic waste dump of popular culture -- but the music comprised a lot of the best. It was still possible, then, to imagine that rock music and psychedelic drugs would send the old rotten world on its way and bring in a new one of love and peace. Foolish, yes, but the young must be given a modest allowance of foolishness, if only so that they later (if they're smart or lucky) get in the habit of learning from experience the difference between fashionable fantasy and how things actually are.

Hearing the disc again after so long -- I don't think I'd listened to even a track of it for 15 years; I didn't make the effort because I thought I knew it so well -- I found it still to be a rare and glorious experience. But, admittedly, it's hard to factor out (not that I want to) my time in the counterculture, so long ago now. The past is another country and all that. Where are you now, Alexandra? Tim and Karen? So many others? And where are you tonight, sweet Marie?


zazie said...

Do you know what ? I am going to search google in order to find the music of "sweet Marie".
You are the sort of person I call a critic : you make readers want to enlarge their knowledge of the topic you dealt with !
I also loved your post about Zimbabwe ; bitter of course, but the bitterness is justified here.

Vanishing American said...

Rick, great post.
I think you are correct that Dylan's best work was from that era; Highway 61 was always my favorite but I liked Blonde on Blonde and the others from that time frame.
We may have crossed paths back in the Bay Area in 1966-67. Small world.
I would never have imagined during my counterculture era (which lasted quite a while) that I would end up returning to the old values I shunned back then. It's been a long strange trip, as someone once said.

Rick Darby said...

Thank you both for the kind words.

Zazie, I am pleased to have a reader in France. My wife and I are planning a trip to the south of France in October.

VA, I landed up in Berkeley around September '67 (left in '71). What a different day and time! You have probably found that it's impossible to convey to anyone who wasn't there what it was like. Inspiring and thrilling at first, but I watched it turn sour and ugly, and was wounded in the People's Park demo.

zazie said...

which part of southern France are you coming to ? Rather Provence, Côte d'Azur, Aquitaine (Bordeaux), Toulouse, or Pays Basque ? I ask because we live in Provence, but we have planned to go to Toulouse in october....They have got a very good opera house there, so we go fairly often ; this time we are taking two friends with us, because they are too old to go by themselves, and they do want to see "le Roi d'Ys" that is very seldom given, at least in France !
As yet, I don't know exactly which performance we shall be able to attend, I hope they are not yet booked up...

Rick Darby said...


The plan as of now is to fly into Nice and spend three complete days there, in addition to whatever is left of the day we arrive. We will rent a car when we leave Nice and probably drive the Corniche to Menton, which sounds like a good town to spend a couple of nights and a day in. After that, probably to one of the three standard tourist destinations in Provence -- Arles, Avignon, and Aix-en-Provence. I've been to all three but my wife hasn't, so she can choose.

Anonymous said...

I consider 'Blood On The Tracks' from 1974 to be as good as anything he did in the 60s. The style, though, is very different from the mid-60s albums of which 'Bringing It All back Home' is my favourite.

Anonymous said...

Too much of nothing can make a man feel ill at ease.
I hope you soon feel something that would make a fella pleased.