Today, May 24, 2013, Bob Dylan has turned 72! Despite the fact that this man (whom I’ve already confessed is considered by me to be a genius of his medium) has been featured numerous times in these pages, I wanted to post something in celebration of his seventy-second year. I would have preferred to present something more recent from his extensive catalog, perhaps something off of one of the five marvelous albums he’s released since 1997; however, due to simple time constraints, that’s just not possible. Instead, what follows is an excerpt from an upcoming post entitled El Ambiente Bien Babes Y Bean de Uruguay, which features a MixTape with that title as well. This excerpt concerns my thoughts on what I declare to be “one of the greatest songs of all time, [which] features one of the most captivating narrative structures ever attempted by a popular recording artist,”— “4th Time Around.” I hope you enjoy it and help Dylan ring in his 72nd by giving this tune a whirl or two.
On a side-note, I’m excited to say that this July I’ll be seeing Dylan in concert for what I believe will be the 5th time around. His current live shows have been receiving some of the best reviews I’ve ever read and this upcoming tour—The Americanarama Festival of Music—is set to feature opening performances by My Morning Jacket, Wilco, Ryan Bingham, and Beck! Dylan himself still puts on one a hell of a show—Happy Birthday!
[Note: The following is a slightly altered excerpt from the post: El Ambiente Bien Babes Y Bean de Uruguay: Volume 1.]
———————-(CLICK TO LISTEN)
Like it? Buy it.
A few drinks into an evening in our rented apartment in Punta Del Diablo, I recall listening to Bob Dylan’s double LP and masterpiece of 1966, Blonde on Blonde, and attempting to explain to my wife why “4th Time Around” is one of the greatest songs of all time and how it features one of the most captivating narrative structures ever attempted by a popular recording artist. While I might not recollect all that I said, I stand by those statements. One thing that has always fascinated me about this track is how simply, logically, and direct the unexpected turn in narrative is designed; particularly so on an album comprised of, albeit genius, but often oblique verse ingeniously stitched to free-floating phrases from, as Greil Marcus has expressed it, “The Old, Weird America.” Here, Dylan once more demonstrates how he is a true artist of the songwriting form.
With all of its miscommunication, jilted feelings, occasional hysterics, postures, one-liners, and silly rapport (as if Lewis Carroll and Groucho Marx had both just watched Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell brilliantly bounce off each other in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday and got the idea that they should team-up to write the details of a tryst at its end), the moment that it is realized that the entire jumbled affair of an afternoon in a woman’s house has not been confided to you, the listener, but to the woman who is featured in a photograph seated in a wheelchair, a woman that he immediately paid a visit to after the conclusion of the related events—this moment elevates the entire song into a complex emotional and intellectual spectrum of interpersonal relationships rarely ever touched upon so elegantly before or since the day this song was recorded down in Nashville on February 14, 1966 by a twenty-four-year-old Dylan. To add yet another layer to this impressive narrative, the tale is not being told to this woman on the day that these events occurred, but in some distant present. Much like the circular tune from which this takes its inspiration—The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”—the song operates as a confession of an indiscretion.
Made indelible in popular memory by George Harrison’s innovative use of a sitar to double the main descending line—Lennon’s elusive narrative of “Norwegian Wood” was released on the brilliant Rubber Soul LP in December of 1965. This song is now generally recognized as a confession to his wife of an affair, however, at the time it was truly the product of The Beatles attempting to break new lyrical ground; particularly in the wake left by Bob Dylan’s stunning singles from earlier that same year: “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” As Ian MacDonald writes in Revolution in the Head, Lennon was quite aware of the inspirational debt he owed Dylan and actually grew to be quite troubled by what might be the songwriter’s reaction:
For his part, Lennon was uneasy about trespassing on Dylan’s
territory and when the latter, on his next album Blonde On
Blonde, produced an inscrutable parody of Norwegian Wood
called “4th Time Around,” the head Beatle was, as he later
admitted, “paranoid”: what did the title mean? Norwegian
Wood, I’m A Loser, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,
and…Baby’s In Black? Or was it the [peaked “Dylan”] cap
[Lennon wore]? And what was Dylan driving at in those closing
lines: “I never asked for your crutch/Now don’t ask for mine”…?
In the end, the matter was settled amicably when the two met—
for the fifth time—in London in April 1966. In truth, Dylan got
on reasonably well with Lennon, with whom he had a fair amount in common (2007).
Whatever the inspiration for Dylan’s tune, it certainly surpasses Lennon’s for emotional complexity. It is the narrator coming clean and giving a complete account of what transpired that day he showed up on her doorstep with a shoe full of Jamaican Rum. However, this confession concludes with something other than a sentiment of remorse; it is more of a succinct summation of the dynamic of their particular relationship. It might be cold, but it is certainly not unfeeling:
And you, you took me in,
You loved me then,
You never wasted time.
And I, I never took much,
I never asked for your crutch,
Now don’t ask for mine.
Furthermore, it has always impressed me with what precision of language and time these narrative feats are accomplished. After all, it is still only a song, and one with the duration of just four minutes and thirty-five seconds. Other than perhaps a character or two’s affection, nothing here is wasted. With the economic exactitude of clockwork and the finest art the whirl of relatively candid words, delivered with cartoon dust in the throat, juvenile whimsy in the sinuses, and his flawless sense of emphasis are perfectly synchronized to an “archaic waltz” (Heylin, 2009) that is taken at a fast clip and put through its paces by the expert Nashville session men (such as Charlie McCoy, Kenneth Buttrey, and Joe South) Dylan employed to help him capture “that thin, that wild mercury sound” as he later described of the album in an interview with Ron Rosenbaum for Playboy in 1978.
Although both women featured in this tale might disagree, you the listener arrive at the final spirals of the song feeling much like the narrator: that there is nothing more that need be said. At a press conference given in San Francisco in December of 1965 Dylan stated, “All my songs basically say is Good luck. They all tail off at the end with good luck, hope you make it” (Gleason, 2006). With its final words spoken, with its final go-rounds of the spindly tune accompanied by the rapid tapping of percussion and harmonica trailing, it’s as if the narrator is walking off with an awkward smile that suggests: Hey, what more do you want from me?
Admittedly, I am a Dylan fanatic, but how can you not marvel at the mind that can create such things?
HAPPY BIRTHDAY BOB
Beauchamp, S., Shepard, A. (2012, Sept. 24)). Bob Dylan and John Lennon’s Weird, One-Sided Relationship. The Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/09/bob-dylan-and-john-lennons-weird-one-sided-relationship/262680/
Dylan, B. (1966). 4th Time Around. [Recorded by Bob Dylan] On Blonde On Blonde. Columbia Records, 1966.
Heylin, C. (2009). Revolution in the air : the songs of Bob Dylan 1957-1973. 1st ed Chicago, Ill.: Chicago Review Press.
MacDonald, I. (2007). Revolution in the head: The Beatles’ records and the sixties (3rd ed.). Chicago, Ill: Chicago Review Press.
Rosenbaum, R. (1978, March). The Playboy Interview: Bob Dylan. Playboy. p. 69.