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Saturday, January 13, 2018

Master Blueprints # 2: "My Clothes Are Wet, Tight On My Skin, Not As Tight As the Corner That I Painted Myself In”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Mississippi”
Album: Love and Theft
Release Date: September, 2001

I’ve done quite a bit of travelling for work over the past 30 years, allowing for a significant amount of time to reflect:  Long drives, generic hotel rooms, and an endless parade of airport terminals all provide the atmosphere that contribute to this state of mind.  In fact, many of these blog entries are the result of all that time alone and on the road.  Work travel for me triggers a range of often-conflicting emotions related to discovery, weariness, loneliness and wanderlust.  I’ve learned over the years that if you don’t find ways to exploit solitary time on the road, that time will find ways to exploit you.

It was on the return home a handful of years ago on a redeye after one of those trips (considering the depth of my weariness, more likely a series of back-to-backs) when I greeted my car awaiting me in the central parking garage at Logan Airport, and started my 1-hour drive home to Pepperell.   As I exited the ‘Big Dig’ and ramped up the Zakim Bridge, taking in the Boston landscape, I turned on the radio, which was queued to the cd I had inserted near the end of my drive into the airport earlier that week.  More specifically, it was queued to the start of track 2 on the 2001 album Love and Theft, the masterpiece that is “Mississippi”, one of my all-time favorite Bob Dylan songs ( https://rutube.ru/video/e448c39bd1ee8a6c6e7066d993fdf7cd/ ).

I’d purchased Love and Theft not long before, but my ears had not quite tuned into it.  Being the rocker I am, this blues-sounding album, which would eventually grow on me, was admittedly a real struggle to connect with out of the gate:  One of those albums that I have to give a listen, and then tuck away for a spell, and then give another listen, repeating this cycle until it all begins to seep in.  I knew it was good, but it was going to take a while, unlike Time Out of Mind, Bob Dylan’s previous release four years earlier, which was near-instant karma, being much more in step with my music sensibilities. 

“Mississippi” was originally meant for Time Out of Mind, but in a move oh so typical of Bob Dylan over the years, he left this gem off the final release, and rerecorded it, with different musicians, and at a different tempo for Love and Theft.  It was the right thing to do, at least for me, because this song proved to be my inroad into Love and Theft that day on my drive thru Boston.  Whether it was the frazzled state of my mind that morning, or the cumulative effect of several weeks away from home, I am not sure, but at that moment this song talked to me, verse upon verse, upon verse.  And it has not stopped talking to me since.

I’ve written at least once before in this blog about the reflective effects of travelling on my mind; in that case 5 different night-driving experiences, the entry inspired by the Rolling Stones’ ethereal “Moonlight Mile” ( http://pete-gemsandbeyond.blogspot.com/2012/04/14th-in-series-of-stepping-stones.html ).  “Mississippi” takes the traveler a lot deeper though.  It’s a song written by a much older, wiser, and experienced soul.  Instead of simply a song about longing to be back home with your beloved one (“Moonlight Mile”), “Mississippi” stretches this way out,  longing also for what once was, in head-shaking ways (“Some people will offer you their hand and some won’t; Last night I knew you, tonight I don’t”) and it laments (“So many things we will never undo; I know you’re sorry; I’m sorry too”), and it connects with the innocence of youth (“I was raised in the country, I been workin' in the town; I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down”) and it self-evaluates (“All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime; Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme”) and it captures an on-the road mindset (“Walking through the leaves, falling from the trees; Feeling like a stranger nobody sees”) and it praises (“But my heart is not weary, it's light and it's free; I've got nothin' but affection for all those who've sailed with me”) and it pleads its case with spot-on confidence and hope (“Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow; Things should start to get interesting right about now”) and it sums it all up with the metaphorical refrain “Only one thing I did wrong; Stayed in Mississippi a day too long”.  Dylan stirs all this up in one big pot of lifelong reflection, somehow pulling it off in 5 magical musical minutes.

Bob Dylan’s singing on “Mississippi” is some of his most emotional.  At times, it almost sounds like he’s crying out the words.  Two thoughts came to mind when I arrived at this conclusion earlier this week.  The first was in relation to a Dylan interview with Rock DJ Tony Pigg on New York City radio station WPLJ back in 1991, in celebration of the first 3 volumes of his phenomenal Bootleg Series. The interview coincided with the year of Dylan’s 50th birthday, which was brought up, and in turn had him in a particularly open and reflective mood as they weaved through highlights of his rare and unreleased songs (the theme of those first 3 volumes).  I taped this interview at the time and listened to it often in the ensuing months (man, I wish I could find that tape).  At one point Bob Dylan, who is an encyclopedia of music-history knowledge, was asked by Pigg if he knew of musicians who would readily cry on stage while singing their songs.   For the life of me, I can’t recall who he mentioned (Judy Garland may have been one), but he sounded quite reverential to a singers ability to cry lyrics with a degree of composure for an audience. 

The second thought took some research.  I had a faint recollection of reading a quote somewhere from a studio musician who played on one of Bob Dylan’s albums, talking about how Dylan experimented for a time with ‘singing into a corner’ during the sessions.  When I first read it, I did not think much of it.  Perhaps it was to get a bit more edge on focus, seeing as Dylan’s music is typically loaded with lyrics.  But now I was thinking there was way more to it.  Anyhow, a quick Google search got me nowhere, so I started leafing through several magazines that I had purchased over the past year as part of my preparation for Master Blueprints.  Finally there it was, in “The Ultimate Music Guide: Dylan” from the makers of Uncut.  The quote was from organist Augie Meyers (formally of the Sir Douglas Quintet), who was talking about ……the Love and Theft sessions!  Bingo!  My thinking now is, Bob Dylan was not so much trying to squeeze out more focus.   No, what he was really trying to do was squeeze out more emotion.  “Mississippi” may have very well been recorded as tears flowed down Dylan’s face, with only the wall as witness.  And yet, if this be the case, it was recorded live, with brilliant musicians playing behind him, and so we all get to hear.  These kinds of emotions often need some level of privacy in this macho world we live in, even for a troubadour like Bob.

“Mississippi” has been a particularly (and to the degree, peculiarly) moving song to these ears ever since that early morning drive out of Boston.  Now, after a solid week of listening and contemplating, I think I know why.  Bob Dylan figured out a way to deliver extra emotion into his music by the turn of the century, in similar fashion to those musicians he talked about in reverential tones in his interview with WPLJ.  He faced a wall to do it.   I followed suit on the listening end, alone in my car.

Pete

4 comments:

  1. I have finally had time to sit down to the start of a new journey into music through the inspirational musings of Pete. I have been fortunate to read his last two blog journeys and for me they have been astounding. Thanks Pete for the well researched and thought out writings. I have always enjoyed music but never really got into the reasons of the music and the nuances. Your journeys have expand my appreciation for each of the artists you have shared with us.

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  2. This one was kind of an unusual escapade for me. I had literally never listened to the published recording, and only heard the song from the Sheryl Crow version which got some publicity on tv and public radio. I've listened briefly to parts of live recordings of Dylan from nearly every year in the past few decades, but only briefly. After Blood on the Tracks, its practically off my radar. I vaguely recall getting Time Out of Mind and listening to it a number of times, but not much afterwards. I found a copy of Love and Theft amongst a box of stuff from an auction buy, so listened through the whole thing once. Initially all I could think from Mississippi was, 'lovesick'. The damned guy's lovesick. Almost like Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, or Idiot Wind without the cynicism. It wasn't until a few days later I realized, oh yeah the record is called LOVE and theft. Well it certainly has that heavy lovesick feel, alongside the wide ranging depth of lyric.

    As for the cry lyrics thing, I can tell you one who does it with abandon, David Bromberg. I saw him just recently in the little club I volunteer at, and while he writes very few songs, the ones he does are full of that intense personal emotion and breaking voice. I 've seen it from a few Texas singer-songwriters. Nanci Griffith, more than once. Also Townes, Billy Joe Shaver and Guy Clark. Although there were substances as well qs tears involved, I guess it was still 'real'.

    Augie Meyers and Doug were some of the coolest of the cool in the Texas music scene. Seeing them in all kinds of joints, big and small was really a treat. I saw Augie once at my local HEB in northwest San Anton, his home was just out the road a ways. I suppose you cold say those guys mostly played an opposite of 'into the corner' but they did it with that heavyweight honky tonk feel grounded in great musicianship.

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    1. Jeff, thanks for this feedback. You got me wanting to go see a David Bromberg show. I hope you got a bit more out of "Mississippi" this time around. Oh, and if you could ever find that Tony Pigg interview with Dylan, I'd be forever grateful (I've done some on-line searching to no avail).

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  3. Nicely written and enjoyable to read!

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