Never Ending Tour, 2006, Part 2, Enter Modern Times

The complete index to the Never Ending Tour series of articles has been updated to include the six articles covering 2006.  You can find the full index here.

By Mike Johnson

At the end of August, 2006, Dylan released his thirty-second studio album, Modern Times to general acclaim. It won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album and was generally considered a worthy successor to Love and Theft. The song ‘Someday Baby’ won a Grammy Award for The Best Solo Rock Performance but, curiously, Dylan has never performed it.

He lost no time, however, getting most of the other songs from the album on stage, but only one or two songs per concert.

Let’s start where the album starts, with ‘Thunder on the Mountain,’ a fast-paced, chuggy song with twelve four-line verses. Here’s a comment from Wikipedia:

Andy Greene, writing in Rolling Stone, where the song placed ninth on a list of “The 25 Best Bob Dylan Songs of the 21st Century”, noted an ironic counterpoint between the song’s upbeat sound, “somewhere between rockabilly and Western swing”, and its apocalyptic lyrics: “[T]he song has some not-atypical judgment-day-is-coming, woe-to-mankind overtones, but this time Dylan seems pretty cheerful about it all”.

Critics have wondered about the early reference in the song to comely pop singer Alicia Keys, but I don’t think it means that much; it’s just a part of the kaleidoscopic whirlwind of imagery that marks the song. It might have pleased Dylan to throw a very contemporary reference into a song that reeks of antiquity. For example, when he sings ‘I’ve been sitting down studying the art of love/I think it will fit me like a glove’ he’s referring to the Roman writer Ovid’s The Art of Love, a work that may have got Ovid banished into exile. It’s a Dylan kind of fun to mix Ovid with a trendy pop singer.

This performance is from Madison (31st Oct) and sticks close to the album arrangement.

Thunder on the Mountain

The lyrics range from generic blues to political comment to personal asides, I rather like this one, which Dylan could easily have lifted from some old blues song.

I got the porkchops, she got the pie
She ain't no angel and neither am I
Shame on your greed, shame on your wicked schemes
I'll say this, I don't give a damn about your dreams

The antique feel to the lyrics of many of Dylan’s later songs is evident here. Here’s  how the song finishes.

Gonna make a lot of money, gonna go up north
I'll plant and I'll harvest what the earth brings forth
The hammer's on the table, the pitchfork's on the shelf
For the love of God, you ought to take pity on yourself

Hammer and pitchfork? Hardly modern times, and we start to see the irony of the album’s title.

One less than enthusiastic response to the album came from the Chicago Sun-Times with the comment that ‘Dylan disappoints with… [his] inexplicable fondness for smarmy ’30s and ’40s balladry’. The slighting reference here is to those exquisite antique period pieces from Love and Theft, ‘Moonlight’ and ‘Bye and Bye.’ Dylan digs into the same bag for three equally exquisite songs for Modern Times, ‘Beyond the Horizon,’ ‘Spirit on the Water,’ and ‘When the Deal Goes Down.’

We have to wait until 2007 for ‘Beyond the Horizon,’ but here is ‘Spirit On The Water’ from New York City, 20th November.

Spirit on the water.

This recording is vigorous enough, but not as smooth and beguiling as the album version. The circus barker makes his presence felt here.

It’s amazing how he can trip through these 19 four-line verses (well, most of them) with familiar complaints about a lover’s infidelity, and make it sound so light-hearted and easy. What the sarcastic reviewer from the Chicago Sun-Times misses is the ironic counterpoint between the breezy, happy-go-lucky tone of the music with the pointy end of the lyrics.

Behind the apparent artlessness of the lyrics there lies a deep art. Look at how it starts:

Spirit on the water
darkness on the face of the deep

In two disarmingly short lines Dylan is able to evoke the creation story from Genesis. That’s mastery. Here’s another bit of Dylan cunning:

They're braggin' about your sugar
Brag about it all over town
Put some sugar in my bowl
I feel like laying down

It can be no coincidence that Erica Jong, who Dylan mentions in the song ‘Highlands’ (Time Out of Mind), wrote a book called Sugar In My Bowl, Real Women Write About Real Sex. That gives us the impression that the verse is about infidelity and sexual desire. However, ‘sugar’ can also mean heroin (Rolling Stones, ‘Brown Sugar’), the bowl being the bowl of a pipe in which substances can be consumed. The final line might mean ‘laying down’ to have sex, or reclining for a bowl of opium. Dylan can casually pull off both meanings at once. More mastery.

Dylan may hate to be referred to as the spokesman of his generation, but I can hear it in the last verse of the song where he addresses the anxiety around ageing shared by his generation. Spokesman again.

You think I'm over the hill
You think I'm past my prime
Let me see what you got
We can have a whoppin' good time

‘When the Deal Goes Down,’ is not bouncy and insouciant but is based on the nostalgic Bing Crosby melody ‘Where the Blue of the Night (Meets the Gold of the Day).’ The song, while languid and melancholy, celebrates that loyal kind of love which is there at the end of the day, when we have to face death or whatever we have to face. Here is the last of the four eight-line verses.

Well I picked up a rose and it poked through my clothes
I followed the winding stream
I heard the deafening noise, I felt transient joys
I know they're not what they seem
In this earthly domain, full of disappointment and pain
You'll never see me frown
I owe my heart to you, and that's sayin' it true
And I'll be with you when the deal goes down

Much is made of Dylan’s Christianity, but there are times I think his true religion is a kind of stoicism; a stubborn bravery in the face of suffering. The mention of ‘transient joys’ almost takes us into Buddhism. Almost, because in the final two lines the ‘you’ could be taken as a reference to Christ. Or maybe there is some Christian tinged version of stoicism. Note that rueful line, ‘We all wear the same thorny crown’ (Madison. 31st Oct), much appreciated by the audience.

When the deal goes down (A)

Or you might enjoy this performance from Boston, a little fuller in sound. (12th Nov)

When the deal goes down (B)

The album also includes a couple of fast-paced urban blues songs ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’ and ‘The Levee’s Gonna Break.’ The latter song is based on ‘When the Levee Breaks’ by Memphis Minnie, released in 1929, about the great Mississippi floods of 1927, and later covered by Led Zeppelin. Dylan uses her melody and the refrain (‘If it don’t stop raining the levee’s gonna break’) to create his own sixteen-verse epic in the style of ‘High Water (For Charlie Patton),’ with the familiar swirl of imagery both personal and apocalyptic.

Some people on the road carryin' everything that they own
Some people on the road carryin' everything they own
Some people got barely enough skin to cover their bones

There was some adverse comment on the generic nature of these song and the lyrics but that’s what the blues is. The blues gives pleasure through its familiarity. This one’s from Philadelphia, 18th November.

The Levee’s gonna break

‘Rollin and Tumblin’ is another insomniac song from the same bag as ‘Till I Fell in Love with You’ and ‘Honest with Me.’ It is derived from ‘Roll and Tumble Blues’ by Hambone Willie Newbern (released 1929 and later covered by Cream.) Dylan’s eleven verse version pushes the twelve-bar blues line to its limit in terms of how many words you can fit into a line:

The night’s filled with shadows, the years are filled with early doom
The night’s filled with shadows, the years are filled with early doom
I’ve been conjuring up all these long dead souls from their crumblin’ tombs

Rollin and tumblin

One of the slowest songs Dylan wrote must be ‘Nettie Moore,’ a sixteen-verse epic love song. Dylan said that “of the songs on the album ‘Nettie Moore’ troubled me the most, because I wasn’t sure I was getting it right. Finally, I could see what the song is about. This is coherent, not just a bunch of random verses. I knew I wanted to record this. I was pretty hyped up on the melodic line.”

The song has its origins in pre-20th Century folk songs, such as ‘Gentle Nettie Moore’ and caught attention with its beautiful refrain, so full of feeling:

Oh, I miss you, Nettie Moore
And my happiness is o'er
Winter's gone, the river's on the rise
I loved you then, and ever shall
But there's no one left here to tell
The world has gone black before my eyes

With regard to the song, Tylor Dunstan comments, “Dylan conflates the myth of a version of himself with American music, the story of which is deeply entangled with mythology and history—from the Faustian fiction of Robert Johnson’s legendary guitar skill to the very real histories of oppression that blues and folk music arise out of and document.”(Spectrum Culture, quoted in Wiki)

Because of its dead slow pace and its length, it’s an unlikely crowd-pleaser, but the attentive audience at the Philadelphia concert shows its appreciation, especially responding to the line ‘I’m in a cowboy band.’

Nettie More

Also very slow, the sombre, twenty-verse ‘Working Man’s Blues #2,’ is Dylan’s most overtly political song in a very long time, even while he threads a personal meaning through it. The last line of the refrain, ‘You can hang back or fight your best on the front line’ comes close to being a call to arms. There are shades of ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’ here:

Well, they burned my barn and they stole my horse
I can't save a dime
I got to be careful, I don't want to be forced
Into a life of continual crime

Seth Bushnell sees the song as both political and personal, reconciling the two impulses by noting that the “feeling of romantic love is not so far from a love of humanity that fills a human heart when it tries to make the world a better place.” Bushnell calls it “heartbreakingly romantic” and “an elegy to Dylan’s heroes and to his own past and a reaffirmation of his love for the common men and women he inspired.” ( quoted in Wiki)

It’s been a long time since Dylan confronted poverty so directly.

While I'm listenin' to the steel rails hum
Got both eyes tight shut
Just sitting here tryin' to keep the hunger from
Creeping its way into my gut

And when was the word ‘proletariat’ last used in an American song?

The buyin' power of the proletariat's gone down
Money's gettin' shallow and weak

(That last line is my favourite, as it’s now truer than ever.)

The #2 in the title might refer to Merle Haggard’s 1969 song ‘Working Man’s Blues.’  Dylan’s song, however, goes much deeper than Haggard’s. (Lincoln, 25th Oct)

Working Man’s Blues #2

I’ve run myself out of words before getting to what I consider to be the album’s masterpiece, ‘Ain’t Talkin,’ said to be the spookiest song Dylan ever wrote. I’m going to have to leave that one for the next post.

Until then

Kia Ora


One comment

  1. A well done piece about the contents of Modern Times….

    Couldn’t have said it any better myself (lol, lol)

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