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Dylan and His Stories in Song

Struggling Weekly, Oct. 18, 2012

Bob Dylan has a new album out, the first in a few years, I understand. At one time, that would have been a “stop the presses” event in my life, but I confess that I haven’t listened to his more recent releases — heck, you’d have to extend “recent” a few decades to cover that.

I’ve heard a couple cuts off “Tempest,” and reached the snap judgment that Bob’s voice isn’t what it used to be — but realistically, his voice was never what it used to be. In an interview snippet aired on Sirius XM’s Deep Tracks channel, Dylan talks about his musical range being miniscule, but how he feels he can do a lot within that.

(The 70-something former folkster has a weekly show on Deep Tracks, “Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour.” He plays some interesting music, and not surprisingly has a cool shtick, but my feeling is the reverse of the line about Spike Jones in the Band’s song “Up on Cripple Creek”: “I can’t take the way he sings, but I love to hear him talk.”)

(While I’m at it, here’s a fun fact for long-time Whitehall-area residents, Shrine members and Boy Scouts and leaders: the late Dr. Sheridan Milavitz, long-time optometrist in Whitehall, and Dylan were first cousins of first cousins. Both from Duluth, Minn., one’s aunt was married to the other’s uncle, or something like that.)

You didn’t listen to Dylan’s music for his voice, but for what he said. He aggravated a chunk of his fan base by going from strictly acoustic to electric back in the 1960s — famously, when the audience booed the electrified ensemble he brought on stage, saying “F—k ’em — let’s rock and roll.” But while the solo guitar and harmonica that the folk fans loved were left behind, the lyrics weren’t — although they were perhaps less obviously protest songs.

One of the things I liked best about Dylan’s music was that he wrote story songs — a lost art form in popular music in recent decades. Harry Chapin’s dead, Don McLean didn’t do much along those lines after “American Pie” and Gordon Lightfoot isn’t heard from much any more, and you don’t hear much other than standard verse-and-chorus, arms-and-charms, June-and-moon lyrics.

Dylan, besides his quixotic and cryptic lyrics, has periodically told stories with his songs. Sometimes they’re not really representational — “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” might be an example of that. There’s a narrative, but a rather fantastic conclusion, with Frankie dying of thirst after a 16-day “creep” through a house of ill repute filled with 24 women. The “little neighbor boy who carried him to rest” simply says, “nothing is revealed.”

The instrumentation on that song is pretty sparse, more like Dylan’s folkie days. “Hurricane” — a story song about the framing of professional boxer Reuben “Hurricane” Carter for murder — is more upbeat and rock and roll-y.

My favorite Dylan story song, though, is “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” After hearing a song from his new album, I dialed up the album it’s on, “Blood on the Tracks,” on my iPhone, and listened to that and some of my other favorites from that disk.

In case you’ve never heard it, it’s the story of a character (the Jack) that shows up at a casino in the West. Lily is a showgirl there, the prize of Big Jim, owner of the place; Rosemary is the other woman Lily is supplanting.

Jim ends up dead, “killed by a penknife in the back,” Rosemary is hanged for his murder, safecrackers break into the casino’s vault and somehow Jack and Lily — who obviously know each other — are involved. There are allusions — a hanging judge that is first drunk, then sober; an actor in the costume of a monk; Lily taking the dye out of her hair; and others — that make you wonder who’s who. One of the last lines is: “The only person on the scene missing was the Jack of Hearts.”

It’s Dylan at his best, making you think. A couple other songs from the album are head-scratchers, too, although not story songs in the truest sense.

Anyway, Dylan’s voice on the new album sounds like understanding his stories, if he’s got any, will be difficult.