Thursday, June 10, 2010


It’s funny in a way that I am listening the Band’s version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” while I write this piece. Actually, it may not be so funny because sometimes you need to listen repetitively to a song that is not the musician or singer that you are writing about in order to gain the correct perspective you need in order to render your opinion or image of them as justly as possible.  In this case, the musicians are different, but the songwriter is the same.

A few months ago, I wrote about Bob Dylan’s notorious 1970 album, Self Portrait.  Now, my attention turns to the album that comes next in his discography; that album is New Morning.  This isn’t going to be a run through of tracks from the album, but rather just a focus in and around the song that is the thesis statement of the album, the song “Sign on the Window.”  After reading about the song on Every Bob Dylan Song, I was reminded about how much I loved the album New Morning and about how much I loved the song “Sign on the Window,” which is not just the thesis statement for the album it appears on, but perhaps the  thesis statement for Bob Dylan’s career (if not a thesis than one of the top five pivotal moments in a long, storied and covered to death career).

We all know that Bob Dylan crashed his motorcycle and then retreated up to Saugerties (mislabelled Woodstock by the history books) to gain sanctuary from a frenzied fanbase and world that he was only happy to get away from.  There he made The Basement Tapes with the Band, worked on John Wesley Harding, and then went on to record Nashville Skyline in Nashville, however that album is included in the Saugerties/recluse period because of how sharply it turned away from his early and mid sixties catalogue and focused on simple “country” themes – the album is only twenty eight minutes long.  Dylan then went on to make my beloved Self Portrait which nearly everyone hated, before he decided to up the ante for his listeners.  Dylan upped the ante as far as quality of performance and songwriting, but not in feel – the feel and the themes on the album still remain quite reclusive and insular, especially “Sign on the Window.”

“Sign on the Window” comes in the second half of the album.  It starts off as a plaintive piano ballad, with Dylan singing the title of the song quietly before an organ and tasteful soul backing singers come in to bridge the verses. Here, Dylan is singing a song about a group of three, there is a girl and her boyfriend and a singer who sees the sign on the window that says, “three’s a crowd.”  The girl and the boyfriend go to California and his friend warns him that “Brighton girls are like the moon.” The piano playing is graceful and elegant throughout, especially when it is paired with a terrific woodwind section that would have fit “Fool on the Hill.”  Mixed with the controlled gospel of the alternating sections of the song, the feel is nothing if not poignant.  Especially when Dylan comes to the third verse, which is what makes this song in my opinion the thesis of his career.  In the third verse of the song, Dylan sings the following:

Built me a cabin in Utah
Marry me a wife, catch a rainbow trout
Have a bunch of kids who call me pa
That must be what it's all about
That must be what it's all about

The lyrics are concise and perfect.  Anybody who reads them without the music, gains the same effect as if they were listening to the music itself – music matches meaning, music matches emotion.  But what makes this so important to Dylan’s entire career? At this point it is well established that Dylan wanted nothing more than to be away from the crowds, to be isolated in the country.  However, what New Morning shares with Self Portrait is that when Dylan sings, sometimes you just can’t believe him.  And as plaintive as he is in this song, there is an element in his voice that suggests he is trying.  Instead of his earlier days when he took a posture and told the world that he could play the role he was playing and he could play it better than they even suspected he could play it, here, he recognizes the role, he understands the benefits of playing it, but in the end he feels himself pressing to pull it off.  Instead, a song about building a cabin in Utah and catching rainbow trout and having kids call him pa, features its other two thirds focusing on a girl with a boyfriend who he is trying to chase down.  The homebody/recluse role he had crafted in varying levels of artifice (Nashville Skyline and the country croon being the highest level, the greatest sheen wall put between he and his fans, even Self Portrait is more visceral) is beginning to crumble around him and will eventually lead to the torture of the Blood on the Tracks Bob Dylan – the outlaw element still there, but urbanized slightly with the tone and bitterness of divorce, rather than the indifference of the backwoodsman.  This is a key to Dylan’s whole career, because it shows him as always morphing and here is where the transition was not as fluid as it had been in the past, he is fumbling here and it is the skeleton key into his psyche, whereas before it had been harder to follow.

However, the real Bob Dylan would probably take great offense to what I have written in the previous paragraph.  His lyrics are not meant to be rooted for clues, which again is why this song is so important in his catalogue – you do not need to root around for clues, because the song itself is so enjoyable as a picture of country and domestic life.  This is not Dylan playing perfectly in genre as he had done on Nashville Skyline; this is Dylan using the tropes of the simple or “country” life and composing a song that is in his own image, that retains his likeness.  And sometimes when I listen to this song, with the piano playing so well behind the lyrics, I believe the singer and I see that cabin in Utah and I want nothing more than to catch rainbow trout and have kids that call me pa, because in many ways that is what its all about.

In other areas of  New Morning the songs suggest a similar earnestness and rural feel (a lot comes from the terrific piano and organ combos on most of the songs).  “Day of the Locusts” feels like the the graduation from a State University in Kansas or Nebraska back in 1923; “Went To See the Gypsy” brings to mind a kid travelling to St. Louis or Memphis in the 1950’s only to have to retreat back to his little Minnesota town in the early morning light, with dew coming to the blades of grass as he feels the ultimate remorse of that first night of drinking and disillusionment; in “Time Passes Slowly,” the speaker sings about time passing slowly in the mountains, time passing slowly in a dream, he recalls a sweetheart who was fine and good looking and about sitting in a kitchen where her momma was cooking.  These songs all bring to mind worn wooden floors with back screens open and perhaps a little creek running through the  backyard, the places we have seen in the Virginias and Vermonts and Minnesotas of the world and of our minds.  There, the kitchens are dark with a small window right above the sink and the bottoms of the chairs have wood that is light with time and on the gas stove we cook white gravy in black cast iron pans.

I used to listen to this album along with Self Portrait at college while I drove around the roads of Saratoga Springs, Glens Falls, Wilton, and Balston Spa and I thought about how great it would be to shroud myself in the roads all around the area and set up a farm or a small life with a girl who was good looking.  I always admired time passing slowly.  I’d drive around at night in the winter, with snow descending slowly upon the streelights of the town and the wood porch of my apartment building, where it collected on the white wooden rocking chairs that were placed out front. These songs would play in my head while I walked the back lanes, looking at the makeshift wooden fences and the small bits of chicken wire people used to fasten them.  I’d think about love and I’d think about esccape.  The summer after I graduated, when I spent my time thinking about people and other things and reading books on a small bed in a dorm room while I taught students how to think creatively, I’d think about time passing slowly.  I’d wake up early and run and look at the mist rising above Lake Winnepasauke and up into the mountains and then later when the sun came out and it was hot, I’d swim in the lake waters.  There, I’d mark the time and think about time passing slowly “when you’re searching for love.” I’d go back and read my books and figure out what it would be like when I could finally escape and move again.

The reason why New Morning is so good and the reason why “Sign on the Window” is so important, is because not only does it make these images spring to mind when listening to the music and the lyrics, not only does it capture Bob Dylan in the act of transition, it also shows us the greatness of the two fundamental sides of our character –  the side that wants to go and take up with the simple life, enjoy the simplicty of sun on skin, blue sky, physical labor, stepping slowly over the broken-in earth, eating something hot and drinking something cold, and the side that is constantly seeking escape, the side that wants to run down every little alley-way and know what it is to be alone and to commune with the universe, for sometimes romance can only be captured alone, with orange streelights around you, and that faint drunkenness giving way to the strength of independence, youth and confidence. This is the issue we all must come to face in our lives, the tear between wanting to run and wanting to stay.  It’s the Town and the City and you can never just jump to the conclusion that you are one or the other, until you’ve lived your entire life.

To bring things full circle, around this period of time, Dylan also wrote “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” which is a fun song to listen to.  You picture Dylan or someone travelling around the world to the different destinations and encountering the different characters at different historic locations, only to find himself wishing that he were back in the land of Coca-Cola, which would of course be America.  Let’s say it is Dylan that’s the speaker in this song, so we have an artist who is longing for the day that he finally finishes his masterpiece.  This is an artist who has put out Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited.  This is the artist who wrote “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”  And yet his masterpiece has not been painted yet, his work is not done and he can’t wait until that day when it finally is. 

What the song highlights is not just the mark of the successful artist, but of the successful person.  A person can’t stop working at figuring out their place in the world.  All I know is that everyday after I leave work, or really any day I walk down the street in New York City - especially on a strange day like today, when the clouds are passing and giving way to blue sky and if you look down one of the avenues, you almost feel like you are looking into the distance of the plains because with those buildings lining your points of vision, you can acutally understand distance – that the only thing I can think about is escaping it and leaving everything that I’ve done and am a part of behind in order to get to a place where I can breathe and can have space.  So I imagine that I would run out to a farm somewhere upstate. There I’d chop wood and I’d grow crops.  I’d sleep in a bed and pass time with thunderstorms rumbling and raining on my roof as I thought about home.  I’d run in the mornings and drink strong coffee and feel dew on the bottoms of my feet. I’d drive an old car with glee and work somewhere.  However, I’d get bored of  that fantasy, just as I got bored with my city fantasy.  When Dylan sang “that must be what life is all about,” whatever part of him that was giving that sentiment was right.  At one level, the country life is what life is all about; and on another level, life is all about looking in from the outside, of feeling exiled no matter what your surrounding may be.  So then, perhaps we are all working at painting our masterpiece, we are all working to find a place that we can feel comfortable so that we will no longer think of all those nights sleeping under strange roofs when we thought about home.


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