Hazel: understanding the song, and the live performance

Bob Dylan’s “Hazel” Reviewed

By Tony Attwood

I’m sad to admit that the thing that always comes to mind for me with this song is that Clinton Heylin’s know-it-all sarcasm only works when he really knows his facts.  And I must admit it – much of the time he does.

But not always, which is why careful examination of all critics’ writings (particularly Heylin who is so thoroughly certain that he is always right) is important.

You see, in “Revolution in the air” Heylin comments “And when he slipped into it for the first MTV Unplugged performance in November 1994, he didn’t return to it on the second night or allow it to feature on the cut-up official CD, perhaps because he knew it sounded better in rehearsal, when he remembered it was supposed to have a harmonica break.”

Now by chance, a recording of the rehearsal actually exists and aside from getting an interesting alternate version of the song, we also get a few moments of the discussion as to what would make the song work better – and yes there is talk of the harmonica solo for several moments and then the comment “what about no harmonica solo?”

The guys knew what they were doing, and Dylan clearly knew it wasn’t working exactly as he wanted it to work – hence the discussion about the bridge section (what I often call, in my English way, “the middle 8”) and quite where the harmonica solo should fit.  It wasn’t a case of remembering or not remembering – it was normal artistic discussion of how the song could work best in this sort of performance.

For me, personally, it is just a song – not particularly inspired, not telling me anything new, and sounding at the start as if it is going to be the 1930 Hoagy Carmichael / Stuart Gorrell classic, “Georgia on my mind”  – it has the same feel and exactly the same chord sequence.

But of course it goes elsewhere, and at least it gets away from the desperate feeling that there is in the song Dylan wrote immediately beforehand – Going Going Gone.  It is as if she has gone, and now has identified the next woman to love – in the course of a couple of days.

Of course these are just songs, not utter reflections of Dylan’s personal biography, but it is all a little simple if not actually condescending in the “I wouldn’t be ashamed” line.  As I sat here listening to the song for the first time in a while I thought, how would I feel if someone said that to me?  Not best pleased.

Hazel, dirty-blonde hair
I wouldn’t be ashamed to be seen with you anywhere
You got something I want plenty of
Ooh, a little touch of your love

And I am not going to make too many friends by saying that lines such as

But it’s just making me blinder and blinder
Because I’m up on a hill and still you’re not there

For me, it doesn’t really work.

All Music calls it a tender song, and indeed it is.  I’m not sure I’d also go with the adjective “refined” for the “musical backing” of the album, nor call this “the most delicate, and articulate” of musical renditions, but then I’ve already fallen out with half the world over Robbie Robertson so it is most certainly me not appreciating what everyone else can hear.

The song hasn’t really been covered much, nor performed much by Dylan – maybe it is that opening, or maybe it just doesn’t say anything very new.  Not that being new is all there is in a post-modern world – far from it, but the music that accompanies “a little touch of your love” has been done a few million times too often before to grab me.  It is a musical cliché and it sounds like a musical cliché.

And just as others have not recorded it, and Dylan hasn’t sung it much, and so not many people have reviewed it.  Every Dylan Song website has got it however, and looking at the review there suddenly I’m on the other side when they say, “Dylan spends the middle eight groping around for the proper vocal key”.  No I don’t think he does – I think he knows exactly what he is doing.

But overall I’m not too far away from the conclusion there:

“Even the lyrics kind of leave something to be desired (“ooh, just a touch of your love”, indeed), which is a slight disappointment considering how accomplished the songwriting on this album is otherwise. Maybe I’m making too much of this song – I can’t imagine Dylan and the Band imagined this song to be much more than a trifle anyway – so I’ll just move on.”

I do get the feeling with Planet Waves that there was a lot of work going on to try and find the songs to complete the album. From 1967 when Dylan had written over 20 songs of note that we still remember, to just one in 1968, seven in 1969 of which at least one is considered by many to be a filler.  There were 13 in 1970 (and they include All the tired horses and Winterlude) , but then it is back down to two (three if you include George Jackson) in 1970, and Forever Young and the Billy the Kid pieces in 1972.

So to leap up to eleven in 1973 was itself demanding, and even with eleven there is no way that Dylan had the chance to pick and choose what to use, as he had with earlier albums.

In the end I’m left with the feeling that this is ok, but is only there because albums needed to be a certain length, otherwise the punters complained.

Hazel, you called and I came
Now don’t make me play this waiting game
You’ve got something I want plenty of
Ooh, a little touch of your love

All the songs reviewed on this site

The songs in chronological order

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3 Responses to Hazel: understanding the song, and the live performance

  1. Thank you for a great piece of interesting and informative writing. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/240/Hazel (Additional Information)
    Bob Dylan’s Music Box.
    Play every version of every song performed or written by Bob Dylan plus notable interpretations legally for free…

  2. Ruby Dickey says:

    I am an old Dylan fan. I love “Hazel” and can’t believe that I’ve only recently discovered it! That is why I am on this site to figure out what in the hell Dylan’s singing about….nonetheless, don’t change a thing “I love it”. Thanks for critiquing…Tony Attwood

  3. TonyAttwood says:

    My pleasure Ruby. Glad you found it interesting.

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