By Tony Attwood
This is episode 34 of “All Directions at Once”. Recent articles in the series are
- 32: Does Dylan really care about these people he writes about?
- 33: All Directions at Once: Going Beyond Joey
We have been considering Bob Dylan’s compositions in 1975 in the order they were written, and what is so noticeable is that while in 1974 Dylan had the theme of relationships at the heart of almost all his songs, now in 1975 as he worked with Jacques Levy he wrote about individuals and places.
This change of direction does not normally come across in the reviews of Dylan’s compositions which either contemplate each song individually, or instead take a whole album, and then ignore all that has gone before when considering the next album.
Yet here, as we have moved through each song in 1975 was can see the two writers moving through make-believe people and real or imagined places, occasionally incorporating actual locations and participants, but with the people seen in a way that some critics felt was wrong because they were not accurate enough.
And we can notice that when Bob and Jacques have played with places and developed a fictional place from a real place, no one seems to mind. So one rule for the people, another for the places it seems. The critics demand that reality is required; but only up to a point.
Moving on we find that “Black Diamond Bay” does two things: it describes the volcanic eruption from the perspective of those affected, and sees it also from the point of view of those who merely consume the story as a piece of news. This is a very different take from the earlier compositions for the album in that previously the perspective is that of the singer or central character. The inspiration was the novel “Victory” by Joseph Conrad and Conrad is indeed pictured on the sleeve, but the imagination both musical and poetic, is from the two men working together.
And of course no one objects that the story told is not accurate. They get the notion of fiction at this point, even though they could not cope with the fictionalisation of real people in the earlier songs.
For myself, and it is just my view, with such a mix of songs and viewpoints, it is as if the composers are jointly telling us that in the end there is no reality. It is all perspective – which is of course the opposite of what the critics have said – and personally I’d always prefer to think about Bob’s broader message through a collection of songs, rather than labour through the argument of accuracy. Because in the end, no description is ever accurate.
And now, at this point, to show how far this can be taken we have, as a wonderful bonus, Jacques Levy’s fabulous recording which not only gives us his version of the song, but a brief introduction.
What fantastic piano playing! What a vision! What fun!
So we can now see what Levy and Dylan were playing at: it wasn’t just extending the reality of the people portrayed in the earlier songs, but it was a case of exploring how far reality and fiction could be pushed and merged, merged and pushed, step by step taking the project ever forward. Once again, by considering the songs in the order composed we can, not for the first time, understand the overarching concept of shifting realities, which those who insist on the notion of “one song at a time” fail to perceived.
For me, the Levy rendition is invaluable because, it strengthens the whole concept of the ever changing reality, with people swimming in and out of the frame, with nothing quite certain. The gambling and the Panama hat all fly back to “Victory” but much else is new.
It is above all, such extraordinary vibrant fun – and also explains my sudden venture into quoting PG Wodehouse in the “Does Dylan really care about these people he writes about” episode. Yes they care, but these people remain characters. As Bob himself once so famously said.
All these people that you mention, yes, I know them, they're quite lame I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name
And then there was a break.
Of course the Dylan/Levy partnership needed the occasional break and time to explore other ideas, as much as any other combination of writers. Indeed after writing “Black Diamond Bay” both men might well have been inclined to take a bit of time reflecting on what else was possible.
And this was certainly the case with their next composition was “Catfish”: another look at an individual person, felt through an exploration of what might be possible in a different way of doing things – rather as Mozambique is.
It is a slow atmospheric blues with a reverberating harmonica played throughout – while the blues band does its blues band thing. So here we are again playing with an event (this time a sports event) turning it into an aesthetic moment that speaks to us about the essence of human life, exactly as the blues can do.
I must admit my first thought was to doubt whether the two composers were deadly serious in what they were doing here; but that view changed with the Joe Cocker version (below) shows us exactly where this song can be taken. Sometimes it does take another performer to show us just what is possible…
So the character and place theme is continue through the pitcher Jim (Catfish) Hunter, who at his National Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Day Speech in 1987 is reported to have said, “Winning isn’t everything. Wanting to win is.” Although it is not a style of life that I aspire to, I can see his point.
Thus, we continue, people and places, places and people – it seems so obvious, but it is anything but, for I certainly can’t think of another set of songs that are so diverse and yet which so successfully extend a theme. However it is interesting that no one seems to complain about the portrayal of Catfish as they do about other people in these songs.
And then we are off to Mozambique
I’m sticking with the album version here, rather than a live version, because for me, Bob never quite conveys the simple elegance of the song when playing it live. Returning to this version I find it held back just enough to make it shine forth.
This song has been highly criticised as being rather trivial and trite – a throw away – as if every song has to be a “Johanna” or “Desolation Row”. But why? Of course if one does not understand that this is an album about people and places, then the question arises, what is Bob Dylan doing singing about Mozambique tourism? Isn’t there a cause he should be chasing down at this point? Where is the protest or the blues?
Well no there isn’t, and that is the point of the album; and how difficult is that to grasp? After all the lyrics make it clear enough, and it is not as if Bob has not changed directions a thousand times in the past.
Indeed if we had here an album which contained some of Dylan’s earlier themes, and then he threw in Mozambique that would be rather strange, but no, this is not that sort of album at all. If you want a word for it, it is a travelogue. But more than that, it is a beautifully executed travelogue.
And if you want it to mean more, it is surely a sarcastic commentary on the super rich travelling to a country gripped by a civil war which lasted 16 years and which ended just before the song was written and recorded. A country in which most of the land is owned by women, many of whom are led into forced marriages. Did the critics really think Bob and Jacques didn’t actually get that?
But we move on, and as we shall see in the next episode, there are still places to go and people to see. And anyway what is so wrong with that? If we don’t go and look, how on earth will we ever know?
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