Most Of The Time Part 1: Except sometimes appears here.
by Jochen Markhorst
Part II – I don’t even think about him
The success of the album Oh Mercy is of course mainly due to the many beautiful songs, but a not unimportant part of the glory may also go to master producer Daniel Lanois, who has put a lot of love into “Most Of The Time”, too. More than Dylan, anyway. The bard effortlessly acknowledges this in his autobiography Chronicles, and at the same time we regain insight into the almost mystical respect that the man has for The Song – regardless of whether it is someone else’s or his own song.
“It didn’t have a melody,” Dylan writes, and “I never did come up with any definite melody, only generic chords, but Dan thought he heard something.” He then describes how he allows Lanois to have his way with the song, who then turns it into a slow, melancholic song. Hours later Dylan sees: “We worked it to a standstill. Dan would have to be a shaman to make this work. The song, which seemed unfinished to begin with, had just become more unfinished as we rolled on. […]. The lyrics were so full of cloudy meaning and there was nothing in the song that was transforming itself.” Discouraged, Dylan drops out. “I didn’t need this. It’s not like I despised the song, I just didn’t have the will to work on it.”
Dylan’s self-analysis is stuck in incomprehension and despondency, but it is not that complex to trace the source of Dylan’s unease. Actually, the autobiographer himself already gives the explanation, the paragraph before, when he introduces his recollections with regard to the recording of “Most Of The Time”:
“It seemed to have more to do about time itself than it did with me. I felt that the sound of a clock like Big Ben should be ticking right through the tune at various levels. A big-band treatment would have been okay, too. In my mind I was beginning to hear me singing the song with the Johnny Otis Orchestra.”
…so apparently he already has an atmosphere, and probably a hint of a melody, in mind – and that clashes with what Lanois is now making of it.
Dylan’s feeling is hard to follow, though. The Johnny Otis Orchestra? The Godfather Of Rhythm and Blues (or blues and rhythm, as Otis himself says) with this lyrics? “Most of the time / I’m clear focused all around” is hard to imagine laid down on a bed à la “Harlem Nocturne”, “Cupid Boogie” or “Rockin’ Blues.” Let alone on “Willie And The Hand Jive”.
No, Dylan probably thinks of Johnny Otis’ version of “Stardust” via the Hoagy Carmichael detour, of Johnny Otis as the accompanist of Little Esther, with slow, melancholic songs like “Lost In A Dream” and “Double Crossing Blues” – or “Far Away Christmas Blues”, the soaring Christmas blues he plays in Episode 34 (“Christmas & New Year’s”) of his radio show.
Songs, anyway, where Johnny Otis indeed does sound more like a big-band. With a sound and a colour coming close to Sinatra’s Wee Small Hours, or rather: close to the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. Which is also the orchestra that, arguably, produces the most beautiful versions of “I Get Along Without You Very Well” (Sinatra in 1955 and Linda Ronstadt in 1986, the last recording of Nelson Riddle, who dies halfway through the recording of Ronstadt’s For Sentimental Reasons). Arrangements and an orchestra, in any case, that one can hear effortlessly under “Most Of The Time”.
Although… the Dylan of 2020 might have gone for the approach of the ultimate version, Chet Baker’s:
The two versions released on The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs (2008) wonderfully illustrate how much Dylan is looking for a melody and how Lanois turns the song to his liking. The first version is almost cheerful, is spiced up with a jittery harmonica and Dylan jumps high and low in search of a melody – and then eventually ending up more or less with “Little Sadie” (Self Portrait, 1970). Hours later (version #2) Lanois has slowed down the pace, removed the peaks out of the melody and laid down most – of many – guitar layers. By then we are already close to the final version, which will be put together without Dylan.
The producer feels perfectly well what the song needs. The basis is the soggy, swampy Louisiana sound. The drummer avoids cymbals and hi-hat, the snare drum is muffled, the bass is limited to long, languid dragging notes, though he is allowed to play the riff in between – just to prevent blasting horns or splashing guitars, for example, from bringing any brightness. On top of that, Lanois then, like eight years later in “Not Dark Yet”, lays a carpet of guitars, in which at most his own metal Dobro-guitar may provide lugubrious, somewhat shiny accents.
Whatever else Dylan thinks of it, the result is wonderful. Lanois does acknowledge the emotion, the suffering of the narrator – bizarrely enough in contrast to Dylan himself, who tells he suspects more of a philosophical message (“It seemed to have more to do about time itself than it did with me”).
In that first version we hear a protagonist who actually seems mainly relieved that he is over his former lover. The final version, however, tells the true story with exactly the same words: the ex-lover is still deep, deep under his skin and the abandoned lover is still heart broken. All of a sudden the song gains the moving power of the reversal of a Lost Love song’s normal pattern (“Heartbreak Hotel”, “Yesterday”, “Nothing Compares 2 U”), in which the singer makes a point of his loss in every single line. The “I” in “Most Of The Time”, on the other hand, spells out line after line how he does not miss her at all… well: most of the time anyway. So: Hoagy Carmichael’s reversal, though even more subtle than in “I Get Along Without You Very Well” – in Dylan’s case, the listener really doubts whether he is already almost over her, or whether he is trying to wear away his distressing grief with self-deception.
Lanois’ arrangement provides the answer; that scar is there, and it won’t go away.
Few artists venture into this song. And for those few, things usually go wrong – apparently everything has to be right for an interpretation of “Most Of The Time”.
Lloyd Cole is a gifted artist, but seems to have no idea what he’s singing (on Cleaning Out The Ashtrays, 2009), Bettye LaVette is a veteran who can’t really do anything wrong, but still overshoots the mark here (on the otherwise successful tribute project Chimes Of Freedom: The Songs Of Bob Dylan, 2012), and like that, there are quite a few more misses.
In the end, the few direct hits are scored, as usual, by ladies.
The irresistible Mary Lee Kortes, known in Dylan circles for performing as Mary Lee’s Corvette Blood On The Tracks integrally and rather brilliantly, sings a heartbreakingly sober and empathetic version, only with guitar, for BBC Scotland.
More polished, but certainly no less moving is Sophie Zelmani.
The Swedish songwriter contributes her version of the song to the soundtrack of the Dylan-vehicle Masked And Anonymous (2003) and here everything falls into place. Zelmani is heartbreaking as she tries to hang on, her breaking voice is mercilessly mixed far up front, the accompaniment is melancholy and messy and creeping slowly over the singer. She can then afford one faux-pass – apparently Sophie finds it scary to appear homosexual, so she becomes he, her becomes him. And that is more important than the rhyme: “I can survive, I can endure / And I don’t even think about him.” Heresy.
Tough lady Mary Lee can’t be bothered with such petty concerns, fortunately.
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
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