Old Rockers Never Die, They Just Flail Away: ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ the Beatles, the Stones, and the 2017 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction (Part One)
A Year in the Life
If 1968 was considered a landmark year for our planet, then 1967 was its precursor. The pre-revolutionary tide that 1967 ushered into the U.S., Europe, Latin America and elsewhere was already hinted at in the popular and performing arts. The actual physical explosion came later, in 1968. For now, we can relish the times for what they were.
Celebrating the 50th anniversary, then, of the launch of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — an obvious outgrowth of the fomenting fervor of the period — our local Public Broadcasting Station (or PBS for short) presented a marathon run of money-raising efforts. But the most significant aspect of the network’s frequent stops for call-in contributions and on-air fund drives came with the showing of a British-made “making-of” documentary, Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution, informing viewers that it was 50 years ago this summer that the Fab Four’s milestone recording was first issued.
Highly informative and thoroughly documented, the British host for the program, composer and musician Howard Goodall, took television audiences through a “magical mystery” tour of some of the Beatles’ most memorable tunes and pioneering work methods. The group labored for months on end, along with their producer, Sir George Martin (known widely as the “Fifth” Beatle), at the Abbey Road Studios in London, England.
Full of fun facts and priceless trivia, the program leaned a bit too heavily on what a so-called “masterpiece” the Sgt. Pepper album undoubtedly was (as if there were any doubt); and how “transformational” and “industry changing” the classic compilation of songs became in the hands of John, Paul, George and Ringo. But instead of turning viewers on to the boys’ superbly recorded output, it turned this steadfast fan off to the excessively pedantic and doctrinaire style of presentation.
You can’t blame the Brits for trying, though. They will stiff-upper-lip through anything, if given half a chance. But this Beatles buff was having none of it. I did manage to sit through at least two showings, which is saying a lot for my endurance.
Ultimately, I managed to catch the most pertinent aspects of how the affable team of Liverpudlians enjoyed experimenting with the innovative multi-track recording techniques being employed at the studio. From multiple overdubs and tape splicing, to layering and backward tape loops; from brass bands, Baroque fanfares and piano crescendos, from the use of a harmonium, tabla and tamboura, animal noises and sound effects, to a 41-piece orchestra (not to mention drug-induced atmospherics), the songs had a unity of purpose and concentration of thematic ideas that were unlike anything else on the market.
Though not as experimental as some would like for us to believe — the group had released two earlier efforts of more substantive material, to be found on Rubber Soul and Revolver — Sgt. Pepper went on to become the Beatles’ definitive statement on their keen observations of daily life, as well as the influence of everyday occurrences found in British newspapers of the time, along with fond (and not-so-fond) remembrances of childhood while growing up in postwar England.
The most arresting development for non-initiates was that the songs, “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” were grounded in actual locations; that both numbers were planned as part of the original Sgt. Pepper concept. Instead, Capitol Records insisted on releasing the songs as the A- and B-sides of a single. Since the Beatles had stopped touring altogether in August 1966 — for a variety of reasons, including security issues, inability to progress artistically, and plain old exhaustion — they decided to record them for later use. Eventually, “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” wound up on their December 1967 Magical Mystery Tour release.
Certainly, if “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” had been integrated at the time into Sgt. Pepper, perhaps reluctant critics might have been quicker to get on the celebratory bandwagon, so to speak. Such as it was, the album continued to attract new converts. Consequently, one must consider this undertaking as a major leap forward in the art of popular music.
Days of “Whine” and Roses
Even more striking — and a clear nod to the yet-to-be-born MTV generation — were the idiosyncratic video representations (in living color, no less) that accompanied the two songs. When I first watched these mini-movies on TV in the mid-sixties, I was clearly confounded by the content. So much so that I feared for the Beatles’ state of mind. The viewer is bombarded with a perplexing array of surreal images and head-scratching visuals that transcend the psychedelic LSD trips of the era into outright weirdness.
As bizarre and outlandish as these videos appeared to their fans, however, it was the altered looks of the Fab Four that drew the most attention. Without advance warning, our Liverpool lads had morphed from the clean-cut, tailor-made young gents they pretended to be (under the tutelage of their manager, Brian Epstein) into the bearded, long-haired British Mod-style pop artistes they had become.
Disclosures such as these, while they tend to be unnerving in the short run, helped to explain the Beatles’ overall songwriting logic. By shedding new light on the creative process, one could spot clues as to the various personality conflicts and clashes with authority figures the boys were unfortunately prone to. Some of the harshest behavior would come from Paul and John toward the members of their group — but reserved especially for themselves. These were evidenced in many of the songs from that period. In order to concentrate on the Beatles’ individual contributions, then, I’d like to focus on several of their biggest hits.
The title of Lennon’s “A Hard Day’s Night” from 1964, for example, was taken from one of Ringo’s frequent malapropisms (“That was a hard day’s night, all right”). Yet the lyrics drove “home” the fact that a working-class stiff such as John would never have amounted to much of anything had he not worked his rear-end off first and foremost, or been forced to do so by others and their specific wants and needs:
It’s been a hard day’s night and I been workin’ like a dog
It’s been a hard day’s night, I should be sleepin’ like a log
But when I get home to you I’ll find the things that you
Will make me feel all right
You know I work all day to get you money to buy you things
And it’s worth it just to hear you say you’re gonna give me everything
So why on earth should I moan, ‘cause when I get you alone
You know I feel OK
When I’m home everything seems to be right
When I’m home feeling you holding me tight, tight, yeah!
Comfort from that certain someone is fine, as far as that goes. For the rich, it’s money in the coffer. For the poor and self-reliant, a loving wife or sweetheart is worth their weight in gold. Whatever gets you through the day, chaps — or the never-ending tour, in Lennon’s case. As long as he gets what he needs at night, at the end of a long and tiring day, “everything seems to be right,” for now.
Things went from bad to worse — or “verse” in this instance, with Lennon’s mammoth hit “Help!” emerging about a year later. Here was the songwriter’s cri du coeur, a “cry from the heart” for aid and comfort that John was forced to utter and that was openly advertised to the world at large:
Help! I need somebody
Help! Almost anybody
Help! You know I need someone
When I was younger, so much younger than today
I never needed anybody’s help in any way
But now these days are gone, I’m not so self-assured
Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors
Help me if you can, I’m feelin’ down
And I do appreciate you being ‘round
Help me get my feet back on the ground
Won’t you please, please help me?
And now my life has changed in oh so many ways
My independence seems to vanish in the haze
But every now and then I feel so insecure
I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before
Whatever happened to John’s youthful exuberance, his pride in his accomplishments and his joie de vivre? Where was that spirit of adventure, of trying out new things, of boldly going where no pop-rock band had gone before? If his independence (and, ergo, his individualism) had vanished in the ensuing haze, what was there left for him to do?
“I really was crying out for help,” Lennon later confessed in that famous 1980 Playboy interview. “I meant it — it’s real. The lyric is as good now as it was then. It is no different, and it makes me feel secure to know that I was aware of myself then. I was just singing ‘help’ and I meant it.” He also preferred to have had the song recorded at a slower pace so as to reflect the seriousness of his situation, but so be it.
As much as Lennon’s life was changing in and around 1965 and beyond, it would change even further in years to come when the Beatles would eventually go their separate ways, and when John took up with Yoko and the avant-garde. The most interesting element going forward, though, was that Lennon returned full-blast to his rock-and-roll roots, which was clearly on his mind in the Beatles’ latter work — specifically, in their final recorded effort, Abbey Road from September 1969.
For me, and for people of my generation, the Abbey Road album is our personal Sgt. Pepper. There is something for everyone on this milestone Apple Records production: quirky word-play and tricky poetics in “Come Together,” all-out hard rock sounds in “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” unfettered soul in “Oh! Darling,” a buoyant sing-along in “Octopus’s Garden,” a jaunty jukebox number in “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” two classic forays (by the elusive George Harrison) in “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun,” lustrous harmonizing by all four of the Beatles in “Because,” and Paul’s extended pop opera (with a little help from former friend John) for pretty much the last 16 minutes.
The songs were laid down amid much strife and squabble. John and Paul were going at each other’s throats full throttle; George felt rejected and under-utilized by both Paul AND John; while the happy-go-lucky Ringo gamely soldiered on, in spite of all the controversy. No two or three Beatles were in the studio at the same time: the backing vocals were recorded separately, for the most part and at varying intervals, to be combined later in the finished cut.
It’s a miracle that anything came out of those sessions, but they did. The recording techniques the Beatles had learned throughout the intervening years had finally “come together” in this, their crowning achievement.
What’s in a Song?
John Lennon wasn’t the only one to have felt the ill effects of fame and fortune, of over-sensitive egos and non-stop touring and concertizing. Those pent-up emotions bubbled over as well into some of his band-mate Paul McCartney’s most inspired output.
On the same album Help!, Paul composed a song that has been covered by more artists worldwide than any other Beatles tune to date. The song, of course, was “Yesterday,” released in September 1965, in which McCartney sang solo while accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, with backing by a string quartet (orchestrated by producer George Martin). By way of a self-confessional, Paul chides himself for letting the love of his life slip through his fingers. The essence of the tune basically comes down to “what a dope I was back then”:
Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away
Now it looks as though they’re here to stay
Oh, I believe in yesterday
Suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be
There’s a shadow hanging over me
Oh, yesterday came suddenly
Why she had to go, I don’t know, she wouldn’t say
I said something wrong now I long for yesterday
Yesterday, love was such an easy game to play
Now I need a pace to hid away
Oh, I believe in yesterday
Its brooding, melancholy nature, not at all indicative of the cheeriness and unabashed joy abounding in other Beatles hits, made “Yesterday” a singular creation among the group’s oeuvre. The song was so unusual and so un-Beatles-like (it was the first time that a lone member of the group was recorded without the other three) that it caught the ear (and the profit margins) of their British counterparts, the Rolling Stones.
On a side note, the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were not directly influenced by “Yesterday” and its popularity when they penned, together with their manager, Andrew Oldham, the lovely “As Tears Go By” for the 17-year-old Marianne Faithful in 1964.
Similarly, their version of the song, recorded and released as a single in December 1965, also utilized the scoring of string instruments. This suffused the number with a fragile air of poignancy not normally associated with the Stones’ otherwise bluesy arrangements.
The song’s strongest point is its simple and moving lyricism, beautifully phrased by Jagger in softly enunciated cadences:
It is the evening of the day
I sit and watch the children play
Smiling faces I can see
But not for me
I sit and watch
As tears go by
The next stanza is the more telling of the three, in that it expresses a rueful attitude about man’s accumulated wealth that is totally unanticipated, coming as it did from the likes of Jagger and Richards:
My riches can’t buy everything
I want to hear the children sing
All I hear is the sound
Of rain falling on the ground
I sit and watch
As tears go by
The last few verses speak of old age and its inherent wistfulness as we reach that final plateau — something that both these gentlemen, and all of us for that matter, will inevitably have to face:
It is the evening of the day
I sit and watch the children play
Doing things I used to do
They think are new
I sit and watch
As tears go by
Self-reflection is not the kind of methodology one would expect from British rock stars and stone heads of the 1960s. Nevertheless, here it was, in all its starkness.
(End of Part One)
To be continued….
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
It Was 50 Years Ago Today
Before I begin this review, let me get this off my chest: I’m a Beatles fan. I have always been a Beatles fan. And I have every intention of remaining a Beatles fan — not only when I get older, but many years from now (I’ve already lost my hair, all right?).
With this caveat out of the way, I have a few words to say about last Sunday’s The Beatles: The Night that Changed America – A Grammy Salute program, taped on January 27 and broadcast on the CBS network on February 9, 2014 — exactly 50 years to the day (and to the minute) the Beatles made their historic American television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show.
I was eight at the time, when my family and I settled down in front of our little 13” black-and-white set to watch an audience of mostly teenage girls (and a handful of well-behaved adults) scream their fool heads off non-stop for damn near an hour. Heck, you should’ve heard the yelling when the Beatles themselves came out! Beneath the deafening noise and carrying-on, one could make out some pretty decent music-making — even under those far from ideal conditions.
Well, here we are again, several generations later, with this up-to-the-minute salute to the Liverpool lads’ classic song output, done by a bevy of pop stars and purportedly top-drawer entertainers. The kitchen-sink approach taken by the show’s producers, however, had its pluses and minuses. Overall, I’d say it too was decent, and the music won out as expected. Now, was I completely satisfied with the results? Yes and no. I’ll get to the details in a moment.
First, here’s a brief rundown of the assembled talent: Adam Levine and Maroon 5, Stevie Wonder, Joe Walsh, Jeff Lynne, Ed Sheeran, Keith Urban, John Mayer, Katy Perry, Imagine Dragons, Dave Grohl (a true dyed-in-the-wool Beatles fan), the reunited Eurythmics, Alicia Keys in a piano-and-voice duet with John Legend (now you’re talking!), Pharrell Williams, Brad Paisley, Gary Clark Jr., and — for good measure — the two surviving members of the onetime Fab Four, Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney. Whew! I’m already exhausted from just typing out the names.
It’s obvious to us fans, both in and out of the auditorium, that great things were expected from the above lineup. Did viewers get their money’s worth? That depends on whether the standard arrangements of Beatles songs were what people tuned in for. In some cases, that’s exactly what we got. But in others… hmm…
Let’s cut to the chase, then, shall we? Adam Levine and his band, Maroon 5, came out with guns blazing in a rip-roaring “All My Loving.” This was followed by his solo take on “Ticket to Ride.” Both were respectful and hard-driving but hardly jubilant affairs. Levine could have used some backup on “Ticket to Ride” to move the harmony along. Worse, the clip of the real Beatles singing “All My Loving” unfairly contrasted the original with this less than stellar run.
Moving on, next up was the irrepressible Stevie Wonder in a funky retread of “We Can Work It Out.” I’m told that Stevie has performed this version on previous occasions. However, the song’s melodic line, as he envisioned it, became all but unrecognizable. We’ve had excellent cover versions of other artists’ material before — I’m thinking of Ike and Tina Turner’s adrenaline-inducing take on Creedence Clearwater’s “Proud Mary” (“Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river”). Talk about jumpin’ jack flash, it’s a real foot stomper and totally faithful to the spirit of the original.
If we’re going to mention the Beatles in this context, my own preferred cover of their work is blue-eyed-soul singer Joe Cocker’s call-and-response rendition of “With a Little Help from My Friends.” With its “Ray Charles meets the Staple Singers” revivalist touches, Cocker got to the heart of this song’s content by drawing out its gospel-flavored roots.
Now, Stevie Wonder is a great artist. But if he wanted to reach the heights of Cocker’s classic, he overshot the mark. Part of the problem is that the middle section of “We Can Work It Out” is in a minor key. Unless I’m very much mistaken, most jazz-funk outgrowths are decidedly up-tempo and in a major mode. On this occasion, Wonder’s choice of keys and rhythm were, how should I put this… less than wondrous.
After veering off course for a bit, the show got back on track with superb guitar and vocal licks by the Eagles’ Joe Walsh and former Electric Light Orchestra magus, Jeff Lynne. Lending an air of legitimacy to the gathering was George Harrison’s son, Dhani. The rising tide of their account of his father’s classic “Something” (the title and first line of which were lifted from a James Taylor song) seemed to lift all boats as well — proof that if you stick to the originals, you can’t go wrong.
For a change of pace, the Suffolk-born singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran was featured in a pared down “In My Life,” sans Beatles’ producer George Martin’s Baroque-era piano accompaniment. Sheeran’s minimalist reworking (acoustic guitar and hushed vocals) was reverent if a shade below the original’s solipsism.
This was followed by Keith Urban and John Mayer’s “dueling banjos” delineation of John Lennon’s “Don’t Let Me Down,” made famous in that notorious Apple Record Studios rooftop concert in London. While not even close to topping Lennon’s commanding delivery, Urban and Mayer had the time of their lives trying to outdo one another in the show’s most successful vibe.
Time Out for a Commercial Break…
When we returned, there stood pop singer Katy Perry front and center, with a candy-colored, psychedelic backdrop flowing behind her. She surrounded herself with strings and cellos (actually, a bit more than required), in preparation for a weepy, heart-on-sleeve, quivery-toned “Yesterday.”
Overly dramatic and needlessly weighty given the song’s simple message of lost love, Perry could have benefited from a less is more approach (especially that enormous floral mantle she was wearing). Television’s America’s Got Talent and The Voice, please take note as well!
Making amends for that disastrous wrong turn, we were treated to Imagine Dragons’ re-imagining of “Revolution.” Taking out some of the original’s verbal stridency and instrumental distortion, this alternative band’s acoustic way with the song — reminiscent of the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over sessions — was not only listenable but consistently pleasurable for such an explicitly political statement.
Time now for Dave Grohl and Jeff Lynne’s growling “Hey Bulldog,” one of Lennon’s least inspired creations (a “filler track,” as he termed it). Good as their playing was, it could not turn a so-so vehicle into a first-rate one.
Annie Lennox’s soulful singing style and gray-eyed visage (little changed despite the years) proved a most welcome presence. She was joined by ex-bandmate and former husband, Dave Stewart, in an exuberantly executed “Fool on the Hill.” Here’s another Beatles masterwork, whose most celebrated cover version, as recorded by Sergio Mendes and his group, Brasil ’66, remains the undisputed jazz-pop standard.
Lennox, to her credit, gave the song her unrivaled vocal abilities. Stewart was more low-key on guitar. Still, they had the audience on their feet at the end, which put to shame some of their younger colleagues’ attempts at roof-raising. Welcome back, Eurythmics!
Next, we were off to the races with Alicia Keys and John Legend’s gorgeously sung tribute to Paul McCartney’s “Let It Be.” If this song sounds suspiciously like Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” chalk it up to one of those once-in-a-lifetime quirks. In reality, Paul’s homage to his mother Mary was written the year before and recorded six months’ prior to S & G’s release.
Ms. Keys positively glowed with fondness for the number, while Mr. Legend revealed a honeyed, tenor timbre to go with his smoother-than-silk harmonizing. Here at last were two recognized pop stylists who could sing in sync and in tune! What a concept in these days of shouters, squealers and other horrors!
Not to be outdone, along came singer-songwriter, producer, rapper and musician Pharrell Williams, sporting what looked like a beat-up Royal Canadian Mounted Police hat. Joined for the second verse by country-music sensation Brad Paisley, together they presented an unexpectedly twangy “Here Comes the Sun,” which was not without its inner-city charm.
Up above their heads, we were treated to aerial acrobatics by members of the Cirque du Soleil troupe, who distracted more than they entertained.
This last session of guest artists concluded with the return of Joe Walsh on guitar and Dave Grohl on drums. Accompanying them was Grammy-winning guitarist and actor Gary Clark Jr., who played with Walsh on the affecting “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Walsh may have missed some of the lyrics’ original poignancy (abetted, admittedly, by George Harrison’s double-tracked delivery), but his and Clark’s energetic strumming made short work of the solos, played by blues-man Eric Clapton on The Beatles’ White Album.
For the pièce de résistance, the group’s erstwhile drummer Ringo eagerly stepped up to the platform for a recap of his earlier hits, Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox” and “Boys,” first recorded by the Shirelles. Next, the audience (and the viewers at home, no doubt), were treated to a rousing rendition of that old favorite, “Yellow Submarine.”
Seeing Dave Grohl partaking of the festivities, with his primary school daughter singing along to the music, was enough to understand the impact the Beatles have had on America’s youth. Ringo had been itching all night for a chance to lead the crowd. And he got it, by George, John and Paul!
He did it again when it was Paul’s turn to deliver the goods. His throaty, half-barked “Birthday” did not go down well. Nevertheless, Paul found surer footing with “Get Back” and a bit later with a raucous “I Saw Her Standing There.” In the interview portion of the program, when David Letterman showed the boys around the old Ed Sullivan Theater where they first performed, Paul seemed uptight and tense. He just couldn’t loosen up for some reason, whereas Ringo was as lively and bubbly and jovial as he’s always been.
As a wrap-up to the two-and-a-half-hour love fest, Paul started in on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” following this up with Ringo’s buoyant reappearance for a throwaway version of “With a Little Help from My Friends.” There was more joy and an infectious sense of well-being during the drummer’s brief gigs on stage than at any time in the broadcast.
He even helped perk old Paul up for a simply smashing finale: with Ringo back on drums, Paul wound up the evening on piano, warbling as sweetly as his 70+-year-old vocals could permit, on the heaven-sent “Hey Jude.” Do I hear a “na-na-na na-na-na-na” out there? Everybody joined in at that point!
My final comment on this 50th anniversary gala for one of the world’s most influential music groups is this: it was certainly a thrill to see so many pop stars, young and old — regardless of race, color, religion or political affiliation — join hands together “Across the Universe” in song over the Beatles’ inclusive catalog of hits.
It was particularly heartwarming to see the likes of Alicia Keys, John Legend, Gary Clark Jr., Adam Levine, Stevie Wonder and other performers not normally associated with the Beatles’ music, sing and play their numbers with such obvious affection.
Beyond anything else, this is what Beatles fans should strive to take away from this salute, the “All Together Now” sense that we’re all part of one big, fantastically diverse world. We do all live in a “Yellow Submarine,” believe it or not. And I’m glad to note that, despite some patchy spots, this concert did not let me down.
Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes
Come On, People Now
That’s a great title for an article about the music of the Swinging Sixties. And with so much happening right here, right now, in the good ole USA — from the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to the passing of folk legend and peace activist Pete Seeger and the upcoming half-century celebration of the Beatles’ landmark invasion of our shores — there’s no better time like the present to rekindle one’s association with that long-ago period from about 1962 up through 1971 when popular songs and colorful individuals formed the backbone of various movements.
The songs and individuals I had in mind, however, were ones I personally remember listening to on the radio and/or watching on TV. What’s more, I recall hearing a handful of these tracks in my school’s English and Social Studies classrooms — in some cases, within a few months of their release. How many of us can say we experienced that sense of having belonged to a tiny part of history in the making?
Today, I am grateful to have lived through those turbulent times. Granted, the impetus for posting this piece comprises the thinnest hint of nostalgia for songs that actually meant something. Besides the obvious sentimental value, I wanted to make the case for the enduring efficacy of these unforgettable artworks, as well as pay belated tribute to their creators.
Now that I’ve reached a point in life where maturity and understanding have merged with a writer’s ability to come to grips with these matters, I felt compelled to pursue the mystery of why these songs still haunt our memories after so many years in circulation.
Maybe it was my disgust at the poor quality of this year’s Grammy nominees. Maybe it was my disappointment at seeing how worn and jowly ex-Beatle Paul McCartney had gotten in that spiritless duet with drummer Ringo Starr — and how unremarkable Sir Paul’s output has become of late (“bland” is the word I would use).
Whatever the reason, I needed little motivation to remind readers of what true folk, pop and rock once sounded like to a generation that learned to appreciate song lyrics that were as dense and meaningful as they were occasionally diffuse; with instantly recognizable tunes that, despite the passage of time, have continued to celebrate a momentous era in America.
If I have left a favorite singer or two out, please accept my apologies. The ones I’ve chosen reflect my own preferences and are, in no way, a commentary on the abilities (good or bad) of those artists excluded from this list. To paraphrase a line from Spencer Tracy in Pat and Mike: “Not much meat, but what there is, is ‘cherce.’”
It’s fair to say that Dylan ushered in the times, and from there went on to inspire an entire generation of like-minded artists. Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, on May 24, 1941, musician, performer and songwriter Bob Dylan (he took his surname from Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, whose dictum, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” he took to heart) rose to fame in the Sixties as the unofficial, if habitually unwilling, spokesperson for social and civil causes (“Don’t follow leaders!” he famously insisted in 1965).
Influenced early on by Woody Guthrie, the father and pioneer of folk and protest songs, along with rocker Little Richard and Country & Western star Hank Williams, Dylan used the power and substance of language (drawing from the likes of Walt Whitman, French Symbolism, and the Beat poets) to venture forth on his own as the voice and conscience of America’s disheartened youth.
With such classics as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” made popular by the trio of Peter, Paul and Mary (who smoothed over the song’s edges with the pristine purity of their vocals), and the droning, prophetic “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Dylan sang with the stridency of a picketing union worker, the immediacy of a Baptist preacher, and the disarming yet wise-beyond-his-years boyishness that captivated audiences used to less offensive material.
“Blowin’ in the Wind,” the first item on our list, betrays strong African-American spiritual roots. In the rhetorical form of a question and answer — a mini sermon, if you will — it’s a give-and-take lifted in part from the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel. The words are simple and direct, the instrumentation (acoustic guitar with intermittent bursts from Dylan’s harmonica) Spartan and lean, the voice solemn and sincere, all persuasively arrayed to point up man’s longing for freedom and dignity in his continuing struggles against injustice:
How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man…?
The lyrics have something to say as well about outlawing armed conflict long before our country’s involvement in Southeast Asia took hold:
Yes, ‘n’ how many times must the cannon balls fly before they’re forever banned…?
A year or more before President Kennedy was killed, Dylan chanted this prescient verse:
Yes, ‘n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?
And what’s the sought-after solution to these problems? It’s simple, really:
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind the answer is blowin’ in the wind.
Dylan himself has clarified the meaning: “Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won’t believe that. I still say it’s in the wind and just like a restless piece of paper it’s got to come down some … But the only trouble is that no one picks up the answer when it comes down so not too many people get to see and know … and then it flies away. I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it’s wrong.”
Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head and pretend he just doesn’t see…?
Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, ‘n’ how many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?
Yes, ‘n’ how many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?
If there is any way out of these intractable conditions, it can be found in a later musical number — a suitably spiritual one, we should add — written by our friend Mr. McCartney in 1969, after a dream he had involving his long departed mom, Mary:
When I find myself in times of trouble Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom: let it be
And in my hour of darkness She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom: let it be
Let it be, let it be,
Let it be, yeah, let it be
There will be an answer: let it be.
His song offered a slightly more consoling message “in times of trouble” than, say, the lyrical fist-shaking that Mr. Dylan previously propounded. Still, Paul’s late-in-the-day composition, “Let It Be,” came at the tail end of the decade and was the last single the Beatles released before they disbanded.
Better Times Ahead?
One of Dylan’s most challenging outpourings, an oracular expression of holy-rolling writ large (and a jeremiad standard in its day), is his “The Times They Are A-Changin’” from 1964. At the time, his vision of the coming inundation, of “wars and rumors of war,” of political turmoil, of parents forced to give way to their offspring, of generational divide and quasi-scriptural proclamations that the “first shall be last” — compounded by his mumbling vocals — smacked of the ravings of a street-corner lunatic on the fringe of society.
Sadly, most if not all of Dylan’s apocalyptic imagery would de facto come to pass with the outbreak of the Vietnam War conflict. Conversely, it was exactly this kind of verbal warning shot, cloaked in the formal structure of popular song (shades of composer Kurt Weill), that so enraged the senior members of “society,” i.e., the “establishment,” as it was known back then. At the risk of making it sound like a lengthy diatribe, I print the song’s thought-provoking lyrics in full:
Come gather ‘round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’
His namesake, poet Dylan Thomas, once wrote that, “Old age should burn and rave at close of day.” Not only that, but it should “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Bob Dylan, who raged and fumed so early on in his career, crashed and burned much sooner than most — and long before the dying of his light.
To many of his diehard fans, Dylan had betrayed the folkie “cause” by going all-out electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. And the lyric wordplay, by turns virulent and elegiac, witty and bizarre, were more oblique than ever in his corresponding Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited releases, as well as the classic double-album Blonde on Blonde.
On the morning of July 29, 1966, upon his recent return from an exhausting nine-month world tour the month before, Dylan was involved in a life-changing motorbike crash near his home in Woodstock, New York, which led to his subsequent withdrawal from performing. His forty days and forty nights in the wilderness stretched into a year and a half of self-imposed isolation.
“When I had that motorcycle accident,” Dylan told a reporter in 1984, “I woke up and caught my senses. I realized that I was just workin’ for all these leeches. And I really didn’t want to do that … I was pretty wound up before that accident happened. I probably would have died if I had kept on going the way I had been.” This begs the question of whether Dylan had also been dabbling in booze and drugs, thereby using the extended “timeout” to undergo detoxification. His absence from the scene has never been fully explained.
Emerging from the dark, Dylan released two back-to-back albums of new material: the introspective John Wesley Harding in 1968, and the country-flavored Nashville Skyline in 1969. The public soon learned that he and his Butterfield Blues Band (a.k.a. The Band) had been busy documenting their latest efforts in the experimental recordings dubbed The Basement Tapes (1975), which confirmed the singer-songwriter’s growing obsession with Country & Western themes fused with rural rock.
He would not perform live again until a 1974 concert tour. Five years later, Dylan, who was born into the Jewish faith, would formally convert to Christianity. He was no longer the proverbial “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves” (that honor would go to the fictional Howard Beale from the movie Network), but a man trying to confront the expected norms of artistic life. He would celebrate his conversion with the launch of Slow Train Coming (1979).
Bob Dylan’s abandonment of live performing, and the acid-tripped rock-n-roll lifestyle that went with it and that he formerly espoused, had a heavy impact on other bands and individuals, as we shall see.
(End of Part One – To Be Continued…)
Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes