By Tony Attwood
Knocked out Loaded was doomed from the start by its bad reviews, and if you think that, as far as Dylan’s music is concerned it is indeed a waste of space, then there’s not much I can do to persuade you otherwise, I am sure.
But if you are willing to reconsider, try this…
The opening track is a reworking of a blues piece by Little Junior Parker, in which (in the original) the lyrics consist primarily of the singer saying to his lady, “I’ll do what I want – if I want to stay out all night, then that is exactly what I will do.” The lyrics don’t leave much room for interpretation:
Verse 1: You know I came home this morning at half past three, My baby started talking sweet talking to me, I told my baby let me tell you something, I wanna ramble…
Verse 2: Well I ramble last night and the night before I want get some wine and ramble some more…
Now Dylan takes the original song (which had already undergone one complete metamorphosis by John Lee Hooker) keeps the essence of the music (which John Lee Hooker loses, putting his own musical feel into the piece completely) but now utterly reverses the lyrics.
Well I told my baby
I said “Baby, I know
where you been
Well, I know who you are
And what league you played in
So now instead of the Dylan saying, “I’m doing my thing you can’t tell me what to do” he seems to be laying down the other traditional blues line, “My baby treats me bad”. In other words she’s having an affair.
But this isn’t what Dylan is up to at all – in fact he is telling us something quite different as we find out as he gives us the background of the arena this relationship is being played out in.
It is Gotham City, or something rather like it.
Well, the night is so empty
So quiet and still
For only fifteen
You can have anybody killed
This is starting to sound like a totally different song, but Dylan has kept something very important from the original, to let us know that this is the original. The Little Junior Parker version starts, very unusually, on the sub-dominant chord, by which I mean that if you were playing it in E, you’d open with the chord of A.
This is not unknown, but it is unusual, and where it is used normally you get a reference point of the tonic (E) at the very start, just to let us know where you are.
But no, we are straight into the sub-dominant, and that is what makes the start of the song very distinctive. So the music remains the same in terms of its basics, but not in terms of the lyrics.
(I should add that quite naturally Dylan doesn’t do anything to try and copy the composer’s lyrical gymnastics, he doesn’t have that sort of voice, but he still gets the feel.)
In Dylan’s version, he now turns on the woman saying, you are the one who is going to suffer if you carry on like this, not me. And the suffering of course is because this is really bad world out there, and I am telling you for your own safety, this ain’t a safe place to be. But I can’t control you – you have to take the consequences of your own action.
Well, I told my baby
Further down the line
I said, “What happens tomorrow
Is on your head, not mine”
So what we have here is a very clever re-direction of an old blues piece from, “Don’t you tell me what to do” male chauvinism for which the blues was well known, into the contemporary, “this is not a safe city to live in, for goodness sake take care” late 20th century lyric.
In one sense this is quite remarkable because Dylan is showing us the modern rock blues, which can have the same music as the blues of 1955, now needs a completely different set of lyrics to reflect modern times.
Indeed the fact that this is not a throwaway piece on a throwaway album is shown surely by the quality of the production, the style of Dylan’s singing and the energy he gets from the piece.
Both the original version and the Dylan re-write are dark pieces of music played out to a boppy lively blues tune. The original is dark through its appalling notion (quite acceptable at the time of course) that a man can do what he likes, and tell the woman to stay in her place, while the later is dark, dark, dark, like Gotham.
In short Dylan is showing us we have traded one vision of life for another, but not necessarily with any improvement or gain. Hence the music stays pretty much the same.
It’s a worthy statement, and it’s a sad reflection on modern music criticism that even if other writers on the topic have not thought it a worthwhile comment to make in a song, they could at least have recognised it is there.
Personally I think some of them were so appalled that Dylan wasn’t writing his own original pieces on this song, that they didn’t even bother to listen. If they had, they will have seen that this is exactly what he was doing.