By Tony Attwood
The problems with popular music critics through the ages have been legion. A lack of any sort of musical knowledge (Clinton Heylin is the prime culprit here), a lack of understanding of the creative process, a lack of comprehension of the artistic mind… Indeed everything is set aside so that a simple “does it work?” or “does it do something new?” question can be asked. Most of the time they are not critics, they’re bullshitters.
For creativity in the arts isn’t like that, and thank goodness that although there are some fairly feeble theatre, art, classical music, dance and literary critics around we do have some who understand the explorations, the games, the trials of the artist.
Indeed I can imagine that if Heylin had declared himself a literary critic instead of pontificating on Dylan, he might well have applauded Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49” for being short and to the point with some interesting characters, but sneered at Gravity’s Rainbow for being too long. Or maybe he would have enjoyed the Pickwick Papers because they were funny, and dismissed Bleak House as too dull to hold the audience.
Nowhere is this point better made that with his review of “All the tired horses” and indeed much of Self Portrait (which he graciously informs us without any justification is not a self-portrait).
The notion of popular songs written around a handful of lines has been with us for a long old time – certainly since the early days of rock n roll, and indeed the 12 bar blues themselves have the approach of repeating the first line in each three line verse.
One only has to think of the rhythm and blues classic “I Need Your Lovin” composed by Bobby Robinson and Don Gardner which has just one line – “I need your lovin everyday” and was a huge hit in 1962. It lasts almost six minutes and manages to combine the gospel feeling with the insistant repeat of the line symbolising the power and passion of love in which all one can do is think of one’s lover, over and over and over.
Others have gone for three line songs – Little Richard’s “Keep on knocking” is a classic with
- You keep on knocking but you can’t come in
- Come back tomorrow night and try it again
- You said you love me but you can’t come in.
Or if you prefer there is “Hound Dog”
- You ain’t nothing but a hound dog crying all the time
- You ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine
- You said you were high class but that was just a lie.
What these songs do is use the power and drive of the music to allow the lines to be repeated over and over while “I need your loving” plays with the vocal part as two singers entwine. What Dylan does, typically, is goes somewhere else, varying the accompaniment constantly while keeping the lyrical line stable.
It is a most interesting experiment, and coming back to it now (I have to admit I had forgotten about the song, until I received a request to write about it) I’m led to the conclusion that the people who come out of this album looking silly are not Dylan and the record company but the critics, like the Rolling Stone guy who wrote “What is this shit?” “More than you could possibly know,” I think would be an appropriate answer.
All the tired horses in the sun
How am I supposed to get any riding done?
Dylan has spoken in some interviews about the Self Portrait album, and expressed his frustration at what the media seemed to be demanding of him, as if he would suddenly pop up at Woodstock, suddenly embrace this or that cause – it all represented a complete misunderstanding of Dylan as the musical and literary explorer, the great traveller taking in every genre, and each diversion, just to see where it went.
But instead of seeing it like that, most writers have followed the notion that “riding” is Dylan actually saying “writing”. As a metaphor it is hardly very profound for such a lyricist is it?
I think that just as “I hear you knocking” can repeat and repeat because it is about the continual attempt by the Devil to re-enter Richard Penniman’s life, “I need your loving” repeats and repeats to stress how love is bigger than everything, and “Hound Dog” is just “you’re nothing, you’re nothing, you’re nothing” (the reverse in fact of “I need your loving”) so “All the tired horses” is about the world around.
If everyone around you in the world is just run down and going over the same old ground, it is hard to pick yourself up. So you look elsewhere – which on the album Dylan does perfectly soon after with his beautiful rendition of Alberta.
Although, as I say, I had lost track of this song, when I heard it again I was reminded of my first hearing of it, when I thought the singer sang, “All the wild horses” – which would change the meaning totally to one of “there’s a party going on, and I want to work.” But no, this is the world, still a pretty world, still an interesting world, but a world, that is running down. We need a new direction. The band plays on in ever increasing twiddles and turns, but we don’t get anywhere at all. We need that new route out.
As such, the album is perfect; a review of sources, an artist’s sketchbook, a poet’s collection of favourite lines. Had it been me (and I’m not of course suggesting I have one billionth of the creative talent of Dylan) I would have tried playing with Auden’s
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun
as my source, or maybe Eliot…
See the women come and go, talking of Michaelangelo
We all have our favourite lines to express where we are, to remind us of what’s what, and to allow us to pick up, look around and start again. On this album Dylan did just that.