Song: “Lay Lady Lay”
Album: Nashville Skyline
Release Date: February 1969
That beaming smile spoke directly to me when I pulled the Bob Dylan record out of a large wooden bin at a New Hampshire open-air flea market on a hot spring day in 1995. Dylan's expression, captured forever in time there on that album cover, was portraying one very happy man. There was no doubt in mind. This was not a fabricated mugging for the camera that I was observing. This was joy personified. And that cover grin would prove to be an apt bellwether for the music contained within. Dylan fans would know right off which album I am referring to, because it’s the only one of his studio albums where we get to see such euphoria. Of course, I’m referring to 1969’s Nashville Skyline.
What was my visceral connection to that Chillin’ Dylan cover on that day? I couldn’t have described it at the time, because I did not know the full context. But over time as I got more familiar with Dylan’s past and gained hindsight on mine I would get to know better the common vibe. How shall I explain? Well, let me put it this way: As I crouched down to thumb through that bin of albums at the flea market, my wife by my side, I had a backpack on. This was not the typical backpack that first comes to mind when conjuring up an image, however, nor was it carrying standard fare such as accessories, purchases or necessities. This was a baby backpack and it was carrying a very young girl, my daughter and first born, Charlotte.
Bob Dylan was a young Dad too when he released Nashville Skyline. As with every period in his life reflected in song, Dylan would take this role seriously, in this case very much so, removing himself from the public spotlight by going into virtual seclusion in Woodstock, New York for over 5 years while his children were young and his family was growing (he predated John Lennon’s more famous “house husband” period by a good 8 years in this regard). And so, that expression on Bob Dylan’s face on the cover of this album has more specificity to it than just being happy. That look, that smile, is one of domestic bliss.
** Side Note: In the “For What It’s Worth” department, of the 36 Bob Dylan studio albums recognized in Wiki and most other references, 21 have cover art that depict photographs of Dylan (a handful of them with others), 3 are paintings of him (one of these, Planet Waves, includes caricatures of 2 others; presumably members of The Band?) and the remaining 11 reside in the ‘other’ category. Of those whittled-down 21, the one cover other than Nashville Skyline where Bob Dylan could possibly be flashing anything that would be construed as much more than a smirk is the album John Wesley Harding. I’m thinking this is no coincidence, seeing as JWH is the immediate precursor to Nashville Skyline and Bob Dylan was by then already a year or so into his splendid domestic isolation.
Anyhow, back to my story. So, I asked the guy at the flea-market table if he knew much about this Bob Dylan album. At the time, I was not all that familiar with it, seeing as in those days, I was not yet particularly intent on filling in the cavernous gaps of my personal Dylan discography. He told me he most certainly did, going as far to call Nashville Skyline “the last Dylan DYLAN album”. I got what he meant. One reason I did was because this guy looked to be about 20 years older than me, a contemporary of Bob Dylan, and having engaged with many people over the years about music, I concluded he was likely to be the type to disregard anything that came along post one’s own formative years. I could have objected, having by that time already immersed myself in Blood on the Tracks, Slow Train Coming, Oh Mercy and the live album Hard Rain, each of which came out well after 1969. Instead, more intrigued by his comment than agitated, I nodded in approval and made the purchase.
At the time, I still had a turntable readily available at my beck and call in the living room of my home (now stored away in the attic, partly due to my having purchased a new cartridge for it at a specialty store – since closed - and then foolishly misplacing it). I played the record early and often. This was a Bob Dylan album like no other. Indeed, Nashville Skyline was relaxing in a serene, meditative sort of way. These were more upbeat songs than what had been served by Dylan to the public to that date (and since), the core concept; a celebration of the joys of loving and of being loved (thinking of it in this way, one could argue Nashville Skyline is the antithesis of Blood on the Tracks). Bob Dylan’s vocals were reflected in this mood too. Gone for the time being was that relatively gruff exterior exemplified in the vocals of each and every one of his other albums. This was replaced here by vocals that connoted whimsical charm.
Bob Dylan has been criticized for not connecting with the protestations of the late 60s, which were related to war, politics, civil rights and assassinations. My kneejerk reaction has always been to agree when I read a fresh angle on this. But here’s the thing. This was Dylan’s one and only chance to conquer the real world’s problems by immersing himself in family life. It just so happened that he was engaged in young-Dad domesticity at a very turbulent time. From this perspective one could counter argue that in doing so, Bob Dylan would subtly reveal the true values of life to his fans; the real McCoy kinda stuff. And perhaps in doing so, he was allowing the younger folks who were engulfed in those turbulent times to see an exit strategy; to have some measure of sanity they could envision to counterbalance the insanity that was surrounding them. Yeah, once again Dylan was seizing the moment in ways that were not readily obvious. Once again, he was running with his muse.
A few reflections on the songs themselves. First a general all-encompassing thought that came to mind this week: One of the things unique about Nashville Skyline is that it is very simple lyrically in comparison to other Bob Dylan releases. In the book Bob Dylan Lyrics 1962-1985, none of these songs take up much more than half a page. Quite a contrast from say, Blonde on Blonde, where many song lyrics take up several pages. Bliss and simplicity appear to go hand in hand. Makes sense to me. Life is not complicated when you’re on cloud nine.
Domesticity is consistently reflected in the music and vocals on Nashville Skyline, but the lyrics are a bit more quintessential Dylan in a handful of cases. Several songs however, are of the no-holes-barred-bliss variety. These would include “To Be Alone with You” “Country Pie” and “Peggy Day”. No ambiguity in the lyrics of these ditties. A fourth, “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” is close enough, yet with a little more than a hint of pre-marriage days gone by. These are the core offerings that keep the album light and airy.
The most powerful songs on Nashville Skyline though are the reality checks, the longing, and the regret because even in blissful isolation, the real world, be it physical, emotional, or spiritual, can come knocking at your door at any time. The heaviest is “I Threw It All Away”, which is a fantastic song that has survived and will continue to survive the test of time. The version here is convincing enough, but if you really want to hear an in-the-moment rendition then the live version on 1976’s Hard Rain is where to look, where we painfully hear Bob Dylan in the throes of matrimonial chaos. Either way, the bridge lyrics say it all:
“Love is all there is, it makes the world go ‘round
Love and only love. It can’t be denied
No matter what you think about it
You just won’t be able to do without it
Take a tip from one who’s tried”
You hear it frequently: Life can fly by. And I must concur. However, there are snapshots in time that do seem like ages ago. Our daughter is 23 years old now. I remember loading her into the back of the car at the hospital right after she was born and thinking ‘is this maternity-ward staff really entrusting us to go it alone from here?’. Sometimes, it even seems like another lifetime. So too does that backpack moment at the flea market. Three years later, not long after our son Peter was born, I recall looking over at my wife Nancy as she held him in her arms, the look of domestic bliss unmistakable in her face. It was priceless and remains unforgettable. But it also stirred a bit of memory that I could never quite get to the bottom of beyond the fleeting stage. Now I know. All I needed to do was connect the dots by writing this blog entry and leafing through my old album collection…. to catch a glimpse of that Nashville Skyline album cover all over again.