By Tony Attwood
Returning to “It Takes a Lot to Laugh” some 47 years after it was recorded, it is extraordinary just how much power it packs, how much it moves me, how important it can still seem in my life, even though I haven’t played it for years.
And perhaps more than any other Dylan song, I am left with a sense of utter relief that it was this version that was put on Highway 61 and not an alternative version. This is the recording of this song that I need.
Of course that is a personal reflection, but for me these feelings are important as I try to unravel what makes this such an extraordinarily successful piece of music.
Perhaps the first point to make is that it comes straight after “Tombstone Blues” which is frantic to the point of falling over itself – (which is a good enough reason on its own to have this version, rather than the alternative on the album. Another more frantic piece at this point on Highway 61 would have had the album falling over itself in its own fury).
From the start of the version of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh” that we were given, everything is relaxed. The line speaks of having been up all night – we feel half tired already.
I guess this relaxation is part of what makes this so much more approachable than some other Dylan songs of the era. Also it is neither surrealist in its lyrical approach, nor is it a song of disdain. It is a song of lilting joined up happiness. Here there is no “useless and pointless knowledge”, no search for food, just the traveller on the train (or as I argue below, just a man looking out of his window, and thinking about the night train).
The opening of the piece, before Dylan starts to sing, is a trick Dylan used a number of times but is no less remarkable for all that. Only a couple of bars, but the use of a favourite devise is still something that enthrals us.
It is such a simple idea. The instruments coming in one after the other, acoustic guitar, drums, piano, electric guitar, each going in turn before we are off. It is almost like the train pulling out of the station, and the journey begins.
Well, I ride on a mailtrain, baby, can’t buy a thrill
Well, I’ve been up all night, baby, leaning on the windowsill
Well, if I die on top of the hill
And if I don’t make it, you know my baby will
Those who have commented on the song’s meaning have generally focussed on the sexual imagery, taking the point that “if it die” is a sexual reference, as per Shakespeare. Maybe it is – but it all seems a bit obscure to me. One Shakespearean reference out of the blue, and nothing else? Why? And quite how does it all fit together with the other lines?
Besides which the meaning isn’t that clear. The actual sexual use comes from the French, La petite mort, (the little death), which is the euphemism for orgasm and the post-orgasmic state. But it can also mean spiritual release – the release from seeing a great work of art, or experiencing the beauty of nature. It doesn’t have to be all about sex.
Thus it is just as easy to say that the singer is riding the mailtrain, wherein there is no bar, no service of coffee, no hookers, no nothing. Through the whole journey the singer can’t sleep, and is just looking out of the window. He thinks, looking at the endless landscape, if I were to die on this train, and there is no more of me, even so, my lover would still continue and make something of her life.
Meanwhile we should remember (and contrary to many commentaries) is not a blues. It has neither the pounding rhythm, nor the sadness, nor the fundamental chord structure of the blues. The descending bass line in “if I die on top of the hill” (G, F, E, D, making the chords G, G7, C, D) is pop, jazz and dance music, not blues.
Thus we can have a sexual song, or we can have an romantic taking his romance from staying awake on the mail train all night, and seeing the sun rise.
But there is a third alternative approach, which I rather like. This takes the song to be primarily urban not rural. After all one can more readily lean on a windowsill in one’s New York apartment than on a train. The train image serves to contrast all night looking out of one’s window and all night looking out from the night train.
If we look at verse two…
Don’t the moon look good, mama, shining through the trees?
Don’t the brakeman look good, mama, flagging down the “Double E?”
Don’t the sun look good, goin’ down over the sea?
…we could get an interesting combination of rural and urban. But Double E is a really interesting vision… (and I pick the word “vision” here most carefully)…
Double E locomotives were apparently the largest trains on American railways. And “Double E” was occasionally used as a reference to something very large, in early American popular song. But equally in New York I believe the trains were named with letters and numbers – as opposed to the London Underground where we have had names for lines (Victoria, Piccadilly, Northern, and so on). I believe EE trains were local trains, and also known as “the Double E.” Now there is a reason to think this might be the allusion here, since in “Visions of Johanna” we get the reference to the D Train.
In which case “the moon looks good through the trees,” becomes an urban picture which can apply equally to the rural setting. Urban and rural combine. Both have their trains, both show us unlikely and unexpected beauty.
I’d also like to give a mention to the line, “Don’t my gal look fine when she’s coming after me?” It can be a very macho-centric line – the man leads the lady follows. But it need not be. It could be the buzz everyone can get when the person he/she loves does something wonderful out of the blue. That could be asking for a dance, helping pick up the pieces, or running to catch up.
I go for the New York mixed with rural scenes explanation for all this, because if you just listen to the piano playing throughout this recording, it is not fundamentally rural, it is town based. It is the saloon, or the club.
And the last verse?
Now the wintertime is coming, the windows are filled with frost
I went to tell everybody but I could not get across
Well, I wanna be your lover, baby, I don’t wanna be your boss
Don’t say I never warned you, when your train gets lost
It’s winter, I can’t explain myself, I want to be equal with you in life, and… none of us can ever fully explain what we want to say. I have images of the city, images of the countryside.
The train is the metaphor for a journey through life. And certainly the piano after the last verse tells us that the meaning is continuing – this is not a disconnect. It doesn’t matter if it is a rural or urban ride, you can see beauty, you can get tired, you can be with your lover anywhere.
But if you want a wonderful new insight, just try this…