On The Road Again (1965) part 4 (conclusion)

by Jochen Markhorst

 

V          Mailman, stay away

Well, there’s fistfights in the kitchen
They’re enough to make me cry
The mailman comes in
Even he’s gotta take a side
Even the butler
He’s got something to prove
Then you ask why I don’t live here
Honey, how come you don’t move?

In the second take of “On The Road Again”, the mailman is still the milkman, and vice versa. The role reversal does not seem to be based on too profound intellectual considerations; apparently, the fifties archetypes of milkman and mailman are completely interchangeable to the songwriter. In any case, in both stanzas the mailman avoids the cliché. In songs since the beginning of time, the role of the mailman is rather one-dimensional: he is the link between the narrator and the lover. Dylan has Buddy Holly’s “Mailman Bring Me No More Blues”(1957) on a pedestal, as well as Elvis’ “Return To Sender” and “Tryin’ To Get To You”, and Tampa Red’s “Sad Letter Blues” from 1939, but “Please Mr. Postman” by The Marvelettes from 1961 (with Marvin Gaye on drums!) has become the template.

The archetype is much older, of course. Back in 1938, Andy Kirk And His Twelve Clouds Of Joy with Mary Lou Williams sang the song that would inspire Oasis to title their best album, “What’s Your Story Morning Glory”:

What is your story, morning glory
You've got me worried too
The postman came this morning
And left a note for you
Did you read it, then you know that I love you

 

… oh well, the power of a uniformed, neutral force to initiate dramatic plot turns has already been recognised by Goethe, by Shakespeare and, in fact, by every literary scholar with a sense of drama since Homer.

Dylan breaks with song tradition. In the last verse of the song, the mailman is added to the list of factors that threaten his happiness, the mailman is one of the enumerated reasons why he does not want to live in this house. So he is not a connecting link between him and his beloved – on the contrary, he is one of those responsible for the impending removal.

It suggests that the role of the mailman, like that of the milkman, does not correspond to the thousands of previous songs, dramas and poems, but to that of the mailman in Playboy cartoons, farces and screwball comedies. Which is also demonstrated by the remarkable introduction of the mailman in this song; he just walks in. Remarkable, because this is a large and probably well-to-do household (they even have a butler), but the mailman can apparently just open the door, walk in and get involved in a big, physical domestic fight. He doesn’t even ring once, let alone twice.

It breaks the narrator. Buddy Holly buzzes through his head;

Cried like never before
So hard, couldn't cry no more
Shoo, shoo, Mailman, stay away from my door

Buddy Holly – Mailman Bring Me No More Blues:

 

VI         I gave it a name yesterday

Time is cruel to this minor mercurial masterpiece. In the studio, Dylan spends plenty of time on “On The Road Again” (18 takes in three days), but then he rejects the song rudely to the Waters Of Oblivion; he will never play it again. Unique – even the other throwaway track from Bringing It All Back Home, “Outlaw Blues” eventually gets the spotlight. Presumably thanks to Jack White’s guest appearance and persuasion, by the way. “Outlaw Blues” debuts, more than forty years after its inception, in Nashville, on September 20, 2007, after Dylan has already approved the long-overdue premiere of “Meet Me In The Morning” the night before. And that, we know, was indeed at the request of the White Stripe.

Peculiar, as “On The Road Again” is undeniably at least as wonderful. Perhaps the master himself is still on the wrong track. The very first takes are indeed not too earth-shattering. The first is on that packed, explosive first day of recording Bringing It All Back Home, Wednesday 13 January 1965. We hear Dylan droning a thirteen-in-a-dozen blues on the piano, while he seems to be plucking words and sounds out of the air. Producer Tom Wilson tries to get his attention.

“Wait a minute Bob. Let me slate it. What’s the name of it?”
[in the distance] “Paa-pa, paa-pa
“Bob?”
Oow babe
“HEY BOB!”
Ahm.. ahm the name of this one is… ahm… [some piano notes] … ahm On The Road Again! [chuckles]”

That first take is straight off a complete take. Dylan seems to be thinking up the piano accompaniment as he goes along, it doesn’t quite fit yet, he plays a catchy harmonica solo in between, is sometimes too late for a chord change and the tempo is unsteady. So, for the time being, “On The Road Again” seems to be a poorly worked out, hardly serious in-between – not much more than a warm-up exercise.

Still, Dylan seems to see something in the song after all. The next day, the song is played at the end of the session. Four takes, two of which are complete, now with a full band. Overfull even; Dylan sits at the acoustic piano and around him three guitarists, two bassists, a drummer and Frank Owens on the electric piano are ready to do their best.

“What’s the name of this Bob?”
Ahm… I don’t know. I gave it a name yesterday! [laughter] On The Road Again!

The band makes a difference like a frog inside a sock. Suddenly, in the second full take, the song takes on a jittery, attractive pulse, a vibrating wall-of-sound. Dylan seems to hear it too. In the ensuing studio talk, we don’t hear any more chuckling or other nonsense – Dylan sounds a lot more serious and gives focused directions to one of the guitarists (“Were you playing high notes? Play it lower. Yeah, that’s good, yeah”). Drummer Bobby Gregg is also taken. The nervous pulse comes more and more from him, with the train ruffle in continuo that he now puts under it.

The third and final day of recording, Friday 15 January, begins with the first and only take of “Maggie’s Farm”. That one is a one-take hit, but “On The Road Again”, which comes next, keeps Dylan busy. The song is given thirteen more takes. The last one is the definitive one, and on The Cutting Edge we can hear how the song grows towards perfection. The surprisingly conventional harmonica opening is introduced in the second take, the striking vibrato on the guitar thereafter, Gregg abandons his continuo roll and arrives at a concrete base with unconventional, fierce Keith Moon-like breaks – the second guitarist (Kenneth Rankin, presumably) now has to guard the tempo with a staccato, unimaginative blues riff. Which works great. The mercurial vibrato guitar (Bruce Langhorne, by the sound of it) has all the freedom he wants to glue hundreds of shimmering accents against the massive wall of sound and Dylan’s harmonica flutters around it from time to time.

However successful, it does not seduce the master. Maybe he still has that first, saltless take in his head when he thinks of the song, maybe he has trouble identifying with the protagonist. After all, contrary to what Dylan says about himself in the liner notes, the protagonist is incapable of accepting chaos. On the other hand, the song does fit the profile Dylan formulates a little further on in those same liner notes:

my poems are written in a rhythm of unpoetic distortion/ divided by pierced ears. false eyelashes / subtracted by people constantly torturing each other.

Behind Dylan’s cold shoulder the colleagues hide; the song is pretty much ignored, even by the usual suspects. Only four noteworthy dreadnoughts:

American jazz phenomenon Ben Sidran delivers an attractive, neurotic cover on his wonderful tribute project Dylan Different (2009) – the performance on Dylan Different Live In Paris At the New Morning (2010) is a degree more neurotic and two degrees more attractive.

Ben Sidran Live: 

In 2005, Ava Wynne makes the unnoticed but very enjoyable CD Never-Was, full of fine performances of beautiful songs (“In The Pines”, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, “I Still Miss Someone”), including a solid, nice and dirty pounding version of “On The Road Again”.

Ava Wynne: 

Incomparable to the trashy, oldest cover of the song, by the Australian savage weirdos The Missing Links, which music historians and now elderly fans are placing – and rightly so – in the “Psychedelic Garagepunk” corner (1965).

 The Missing Links: 

They are all defeated by the superior version by Canadian talent Julie Doiron, on the equally superior 2010 tribute project Subterranean Homesick Blues: A Tribute to Bob Dylan’s ‘Bringing It All Back Home’. It skims along the original and doesn’t really add much more than the wonderful double female vocals, but hey… a song is anything that can walk by itself, as the master himself defined it at the time, in those wonderful liner notes.

Julie Doiron: 

 

Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

 

 

 

 

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