by Jochen Markhorst
The Swedish computer scientist and researcher Olof Björner (1942) is a celebrated and respected man in Dylan circles. He has been following the career of the bard since 1963, and since 1989 (Words Fill My Head) he publishes the results of his monks’ work: exhaustive, detailed and accurate overview lists of every note that Dylan plays in studios, on stage and in rehearsal rooms.
The Dylanologists are happy with him; his site, bjorner.com, is freely accessible, is regularly updated and is an incomparable source for thousands of facts about Dylan songs.
Statistics enthusiasts can indulge themselves at the song index, among other things. There Björner keeps track of how often and where Dylan plays his (and other artist’s) songs, and for the figure fetishists he also keeps score of the songs Dylan has played more than five hundred times on a separate list. In the spring of 2018 there are 32 songs on it and the top is composed of the usual suspects:
1. All Along The Watchtower (2257 times)
2. Like A Rolling Stone (2029)
3. Highway 61 Revisited (1919)
4. Tangled Up In Blue (1700)
5. Blowin’ In The Wind (1542)
So one would be tempted to conclude: these are the five songs that the master is most proud of, the ones he prefers to play himself, that never bore him. However, that conclusion is not entirely accurate, for it is based on fuzzy statistics.
“Like A Rolling Stone”, for example, is ten years older than “Tangled Up In Blue” and therefore has an ‘unfair advantage’. The ranking becomes more accurate by dividing the number of performances by the number of years since the song is part of Dylan’s repertoire; this leads to an reliable average number of performances per year.
In that case the top five suddenly looks radically different:
1. Summer Days (51.8 times a year, since the first performance in 2001)
2. Things Have Changed (51.6)
3. All Along The Watchtower (43.4)
4. High Water (For Charley Patton) (42.1)
5. Love Sick (41.0)
Entirely accurate the list would become by dividing the number of performances by the number of concerts that Dylan has given since the debut of the song in question, but let’s not exaggerate. For this ranking it would not matter; the surprise “Summer Days” remains Dylan’s relatively most played song, is statistically his showcase.
Surprising, because “Summer Days” definitely does not belong to the canon. It is never mentioned in lists of Favourite Dylan Songs, has not appeared on single, covers are scarce and it is rarely selected for the compilation albums that keep on being released. Twice only; “Summer Days” is the last song on the American release of The Best Of Bob Dylan, 2005, and it is one of the 87 songs selected for the Japanese release of the 5cd box Dylan Revisited – All Time Best, 2016.
Incidentally, this fact is not too meaningful; no fewer than 127 different songs have been selected for the eight official Best Of and Greatest Hits compilation albums and overview boxes that have been released since “Summer Days” – it is rather an achievement not to be chosen for one of those cash cows.
Dylan’s passion for “Summer Days” is hard to fathom. It’s a catchy, driving twelve-bar blues, great fun to play for the band and it drives a pleasant, exciting Schwung through the audience, but then again: in that category Dylan’s catalogue has dozens of songs. “It Takes A Lot To Laugh”, “New Pony”, “Lonesome Day Blues” … that list is long. Distinctive, compared to all those other exciting, audience-friendly blues songs, are perhaps the lyrics – after all, something does make Dylan reach for “Summer Days” so significantly more often.
The lyrics to the song, like many songs from “Love And Theft” (2001), have been lovingly stolen from rather incoherent sources. The most curious is and remains the now well-known dip into that obscure Japanese work, Confessions Of A Yakuza by Junichi Saga. Dylan quotes from this work in a few songs on “Love And Theft” (in “Lonesome Day Blues” and in “Floater”, in particular) and here he copies the old businessman and the break in the roof passages.
At least as obscure is the origin of the line I got eight carburetors, boys, I ‘m using ’em all; that paraphrases almost literally It’s got eight carburetors and it uses them all (and is five couplets later also short on gas) from the surf rocker “Hopped-Up Mustang” by Arlen Sanders, a flopped single from 1964 that occasionally can be found on compilation albums. Later on the album, Dylan grants that dusty single a literal name check, in “High Water (For Charley Patton)”:
I got a cravin’ love for blazing speed
Got a hopped up Mustang Ford
And apart from that the ‘more ordinary’ winks to Elvis (“I’m Counting On You”), Woody Guthrie and a single folk song twirl down (Where do you come from? Where do you go? is, of course, the chorus of “Cotton- Eyed Joe”).
But then the seventh verse, that crowded verse with shares lent from The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925). No fewer than twenty-two syllables the bard crams into that third verse (She says, “You can’t repeat the past.” I say, “You can’t? What do you mean, you can’t? Or course you can”) … apparently the poet really wants this quote, the length of which is quite a challenge even for a reknowned Grandmaster of Phrasing like Dylan.
The content of the quote is in line with the stories that employees and session musicians tell about the recordings, illustrating Dylan’s explicit intention with “Love And Theft”: “to repeat the past”, to resuscitate history. Not only does Dylan reuse old melodies and text fragments, he also takes old singles to the studio to make clear to his band which sound he wants to reproduce, which history he wants to repeat. Technician Chris Shaw testifies:
“On “Love And Theft” and Modern Times, Bob would sometimes come in with reference tracks, old songs, saying, “I want the track to be like this.” (…) He’d come in and present these templates and use them as reference points.”
And technician Mark Howard tells how this need already arises in the run-up to Time Out Of Mind (1997):
“He’d tune into this radio station that he could only get between Point Dune and Oxnard. It would just pop up at one point, and it was all these old blues recordings, Little Walter, guys like that. And he’d ask us, “Why do those records sound so great? Why can’t anybody have a record sound like that anymore? Can I have that?” And so, I say, “Yeah, you can get those sound still.” “Well,” he says, “ that’s the sound I’m thinking of for this record.”
Daniel Lanois, the producer of Time Out Of Mind, agrees, confirms the quest for restoration of the past:
“Bob has a fascination with records from the Forties, Fifities and even further back. We listened to some of these old recordings to see what it was about them that made them compelling.”
And studio musicians like Duke Robillard recount this modus operandi too.
In itself, it does not match well, it is not consistent with equally reliable, various testimonies that declare that Dylan “really, really hates to repeat himself” (Chris Shaw in Uncut, October 2008). We have seen this aversion demonstrated for decades on stage; Dylan keeps changing his songs, renewing, reinterpreting, up to the point of unrecognizability, even. A repugnance that only concerns his own work, apparently. Actually since Oh Mercy (1989), but unmistakably, explicitly since “Love And Theft” the old master seems to have made it his mission to repeat the past.
In the seventh verse of “Summer Days” he expresses this adage in so many words, and since then he keeps repeating it all over the world, in his Never Ending Tour – since the premiere of the song, October 5, 2001 in Spokane, Washington , the bard has been hurling his provocative of course you can repeat the past into the audience from some nine hundred stages.
He really, really means it.
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