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Thursday, March 5, 2009

GMVW # 61: "Mr. Wordsmith"

Gem Music Video of the Week # 61:  Mr. Wordsmith
Song: License to Kill by Bob Dylan
(Songwriter: Bob Dylan)
March 5, 2009

I stepped through the process for compiling this week’s gem music video email the way I do every week:  Recall a great song from some part of my life, hope there is a good video for it, and if so, write what comes to mind.   The gem music video was there, it had been for a while.  I also had something to discuss….or so I thought.  The song, “License to Kill” by Bob Dylan, was chock full of great lyrics, and so I figured, why not a theme about brilliant wordsmithing?  I began to rummage through my memory banks for lyrics that had me thinking at one time or another, “how did he/she come up with that line/stanza”?

It started easy enough.  I recalled a lyric-heavy moment in the mid-70’s when long-time friend, John Roche and I read the words to The Beatles “I Am the Walrus” and came across the line, “Yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog’s eye” (one of the many examples of John Lennon’s play with words, something R.E.M. is also known for).  It was one of my first memories of being intrigued by lyrics and so I jotted it down.  Yet, I was looking for lines with deeper meaning.  I then recalled Pete Townshend’s “The Sea Refuses No River”, a song with spiritual undertones.  After singing about the variety of ‘rivers’ the ‘sea’ receives (‘pure as the spring’, ‘stinking and rank’, ‘red from tank’ etc.), he declares the following after a lengthy guitar-bridge buildup:

“The sea refuses no river
  Remember that when the beggar buys a round”

….ok, this was going to be easy. Next, I thought of a funny stanza from Bob Dylan’s “She’s Your Lover Now”:

“But please tell that
  To your friend in the cowboy hat
  You know he keeps on sayin’ ev’rythin’ twice to me”

I believed I was on a roll, and had little doubt I would start recalling great lines from any number of deep-thinking musician that came to mind, while imposing a one-per-artist rule on myself.  On to Neil Young and from there Paul Simon, Randy Newman, Chrissie Hynde, Elvis Costello, Leonard Cohen, Jonathan Richman, Joan Baez, Green Day, Marvin Gaye, Joe Jackson, George Harrison, Ray Davies, and on and on.  

But Neil Young proved harder than I had planned and I could not figure out why: The man’s career is loaded with classic songs with amazing lyrics.  I flirted with the opening lines in ‘Powderfinger’, but on their own, they were not quite what I was looking for.  After combing through a number of his songs, I put Neil aside for the moment and tackled Paul Simon.  Surprisingly, I found extracting a great line from a song in Paul Simon’s vast catalog to be difficult as well, at least in the framework I had defined for myself.  On to the Rolling Stones: Again, difficult.  David Bowie: No go.  One artist after another I was setting aside, despite the fact that I was digging up lyrics on the Web to help me through a slew of songs. Chrissie Hynde: Skip for now.  Randy Newman: Nothing to isolate. 

Ahhh, nothing to isolate!  At this stage, I was starting to understand my dilemma, and it was two-fold.  First, extracting a line was hard to do while retaining the meaning in the broader context of the entire song.  Second, it occurred to me that most songs are defined primarily by the music and only secondarily by the lyrics.  Most lyrics don’t hold up as well without the melody.  Looking back over the years, I realized that if I first read the words to a new song before hearing the song itself, these words may have been interesting but for the most part they did not stick until the song then grabbed me.  I suppose this can be both a curse and a blessing for songwriters.  On the one hand, a songwriter can get away with very simple lyrics, as long as the music is strong.  On the other hand, the lyrics don’t stand as well on their own, even if they are intense, so the music better be good.

I had to abandon my theme.  Well… not entirely, because a rare exception to this rule is Bob Dylan.  It’s why he’s the top cat of his era.  Many of Dylan’s lyrics can hold up without the music (although the music does help).  It was still hard to isolate snippets, but not as hard as it was for the other musicians I sampled.  Here are a few:

“Sad Eyed lady of the lowlands,
 Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes,
 My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,
 Should I leave them by your gate,
 Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait”
-              From “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

“Though you might hear laughin’, spinnin’ swingin’ madly across the sun,
 It’s not aimed at anyone, it’s just escapin’ on the run
 And but for the sky there are no fences facin’
 And if you hear vague traces of skippin’ reels of rhyme
 To your tambourine in time, it’s just a ragged clown behind,
 I wouldn’t pay it any mind, it’s just a shadow that you’re
 Seein’ that he’s chasing”
-              “From Mr. Tambourine Man”

“People disagreeing everywhere you look,
 Makes you wanna stop and read a book.
Why only yesterday I saw somebody on the street
That was really shook.
But this ol’ river keeps on rollin’, though,
No matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow,
And as long as it does I’ll just sit here
And watch the river flow.”
-              From “Watching the River Flow”

“They sat together in the park
As the evening sky grew dark,
She looked at him and he felt a spark tingle to his bones
‘Twas then he felt alone and wished that he’d gone straight
And watched out for a simple twist of fate”
-              From “Simple Twist of Fate”

 “I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand”
-              From “Every Grain of Sand”

This week’s gem is great, because it’s a live cut of a nearly final studio version of “License to Kill” off the ‘Infidels’ album.   Musicians playing with Dylan in the video clip include ex-Stones guitarist Mick Taylor and album producer/guitarist Mark Knopfler.  Below the gem video is Tom Petty’s live cover version of the same song as an alternative for those who struggle with Dylan’s vocals.  Below the links are the complete lyrics to ‘License to Kill’.

- Pete

Gem Video: “License to Kill”  (as expected, this link is gone *Dec, 09*.  Here is a temporary live replacement)

Tom Petty version (live)

Lyrics to “License to Kill”

Man thinks 'cause he rules the earth he can do with it as he please
And if things don't change soon, he will.
Oh, man has invented his doom,
First step was touching the moon.

Now, there's a woman on my block,
She just sit there as the night grows still.
She say who gonna take away his license to kill?

Now, they take him and they teach him and they groom him for life
And they set him on a path where he's bound to get ill,
Then they bury him with stars,
Sell his body like they do used cars.

Now, there's a woman on my block,
She just sit there facin' the hill.
She say who gonna take away his license to kill?

Now, he's hell-bent for destruction, he's afraid and confused,
And his brain has been mismanaged with great skill.
All he believes are his eyes
And his eyes, they just tell him lies.

But there's a woman on my block,
Sitting there in a cold chill.
She say who gonna take away his license to kill?

Ya may be a noisemaker, spirit maker,
Heartbreaker, backbreaker,
Leave no stone unturned.
May be an actor in a plot,
That might be all that you got
'Til your error you clearly learn.

Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool
And when he sees his reflection, he's fulfilled.
Oh, man is opposed to fair play,
He wants it all and he wants it his way.

Now, there's a woman on my block,
She just sit there as the night grows still.
She say who gonna take away his license to kill?

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About the video:  studio version, with Mick Taylor, Mark Knopfler, others.  It appears to be the final album cut (or close to it). 

Video Rating: 1
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Best Feedback: Jeff

well im in a decidedly nonintellectual pragmatic frame of mind right now.  two lines do it for me ...

FOUR DEAD IN OHIO

IMAPOETIKNOWITHOPEIDONTBLOWIT

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Also: Tom
Thanks Pete - will enjoy reading this before heading to bed ... you're amazingly diligent and super-fun to read!

Cuz Tom
________________

And: Jack

Hi Pete:

Here's a question that you might know the answer to.  At the end of "I Am The Walrus", they repeat a phrase over and over.  I say it's "Everybody Smokes Pot..Everybody Smokes Pot", but one of my school friends says it's "Everybody Multiplying..Everybody Multiplying"....do you know?? :-) 

Actually, as a twist or a turn from your normal MO, you might want to do a GEM on Sir George Martin.  It might be a little more difficult, but he did a lot of familiar arrangements, not just for the Beatles but other groups like "America".  For example, the piano solos in the middle of "All My Life", and "Lonely People" were his babies (The groups respectively), and the keyboard arrangement on the 2nd chorus of "Tin Man" was his.  You can recognize his signature after awhile!

-Jack

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