By Tony Attwood
Now I must admit that when the suggestion came in that I should review Wiggle Wiggle I wondered if this was a serious suggestion. This song has the reputation of being Dylan’s worst recorded piece. And also I think I have only played it a few times, following the conventional wisdom that Red Sky was not an album I really wanted to know much about.
But I have made the offer on the home page: tell me what you want reviewed and I’ll do it. And so with a gulp I started.
I should point out that my technique is to play the song over and over while writing about it, so that I can grasp the overall essence of the piece, and the fine detail. (Sorry if that sounds horribly pretentious, but it’s what I do, whether I know the song very well, or hardly at all.) Did I really want to play “Wiggle wiggle” twenty times in the next couple of hours? Gulp again.
Looking back at it all, Red Sky was Dylan’s 27th studio album, which is three more than Elvis managed in his lifetime (although to be fair Mr Presley made a fair number of soundtrack albums). So Dylan should have known what a studio album was all about by the time he reached this point.
And yes he’s made funny decisions on studio albums all through his life, like excluding Blind Willie McTell and Dignity, but listening to each of those you can see why. Brilliant masterpieces though they are, each is slightly flawed, and one can imagine that Dylan wanted to perfect them before releasing them. But Wiggle Wiggle?
It was released in 1990, after Oh Mercy which I have been reviewing of late and which contains some utter wonders. And let’s not forget that in 1988 and 1990 Dylan recorded with the Travelling Wiburys – although that second Wilbury album came after Red Sky.
But the point is that volume 3 of the Wilburys includes the utterly consummate “Where were you last night?” and the dreadful “Wilbury Twist”. Now of course “consummate” and “dreadful” are just my views, and I know that “Where were you” has been called a “formulaic pop song” but I heartily disagree. I’ll go back to my review written a few years ago, and see if I can explain further.
However Wilbury Twist is shocking. So was “Wiggle Wiggle” of the same ilk? I certainly have thought so until now. But…
As I listened again I wondered if I have been influenced as I guess many others have by the fact that “Red Sky” is dedicated to “Gabby Goo Goo”, (Dylan’s daughter).
Dylan has explained that he was working on the Wilburys at the same time – Heylin (who on this sort of issue is seemingly all-knowing) says no – Wilbury’s 3 came after Red Sky. And was Dylan disillusioned with the recording industry, as it often quoted? If yes, what was he doing making another Wilbury’s record?
Patrick Humphries, speaks of “sloppily written songs, lazily performed and unimaginatively produced.” Of Wiggle Wiggle he says, “worse than anything Dylan has ever recorded? Maybe not that bad, but certainly up there, jostling for position in that particular part of hell, where the jukebox plays nothing but “Joey”.
Not everyone saw it that way, but maybe I was influenced by the negativists through having daughters aged 12, 10 and 7. These days they are my dearest, closest friends, but back then they seemed to move regularly between angels and monsters as I tried to earn enough from my writing to keep the family together. They didn’t like Wiggle Wiggle as I recall despite Time saying that it sounded, “like the theme song to one of those tripped-out television shows beloved by toddlers and drug users.”
Maybe my daughters were just too old.
So, it’s a kiddies song, for a four year old. Wiggle means “to move or cause to move up and down or from side to side with small rapid movements.” Like my youngest grandchild today would did if I played her this.
But … no! The words don’t fit, and nor does the music. Those 16 beats at the start aren’t on the tonic, they are on the dominant. We hear a G chord 16 times and then hit C, which the song is recorded in. You don’t start a kiddies song with such menace.
Then there’s the dominant bass. A damn sight better playing than on Vision of Johanna (which has that horrible error in it from the bass), this is interesting and inventive from all the musicians. Where the bass could have been just playing C, it plays C, B flat, F twice and then a variation in the third line. Visions may have all the lyrical dexterity, but this has the accompaniment.
And there’s nothing wrong with Dylan’s singing at all – of course not, because on Wilbury’s 3 he is on top form.
So what makes us think this is bad? I guess it is the lyrics – or rather just the word “wiggle”. It is a child’s word – or a word applied to children. He can’t be serious.
But still I come back and say, no, this is not a child’s song – not at all. Just look at the lyrics…
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a gypsy queen
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle all dressed in green
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle ’til the moon is blue
Wiggle ’til the moon sees you
And apart from the interesting reversal of the moon seeing you, tell me why that is so bad when “Tutti Frutti, aw rooty Tutti Frutti, aw rooty A-wop-bom-a-loo-mop-a-lomp-bom-bom” is so good. And remember as you answer that Tutti Frutti is Italian for “all the fruit” and it took three people (Little Richard Penniman, LaBostrie and Lubin) to write it.
I think it is hard to listen to Wiggle Wiggle now without the prejudice of “worst Dylan song” etc etc. But in reality it’s not, not at all. It is full of life and vigour, and take out the word “wiggle” and it is a rock song.
And then start to listen to where those so derided lyrics go.
I’ve quoted Wiggle ’til the moon sees you. What does that mean? The moon seeing you probably refers to the moon supposedly influencing people’s behaviour. There werewolf is the perfect example. Thus you “wiggle” and the moon comes out, that bright yellow light hits you, and you change into something else.
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a swarm of bees
Wiggle on your hands and knees
Wiggle ’til it opens, wiggle ’til it shuts
Wiggle ’til it bites, wiggle ’til it cuts
Hang on, this is no kiddies song, this is getting nasty. Maybe werewolves and vampires is the territory.
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a ton of lead
Wiggle—you can raise the dead
Now at this point we get an instrumental which is based on one chord – “raise the dead” when on chord all the way through until we get a repeat of the middle 8. And then consider
Wiggle ’til you’re high, wiggle ’til you’re higher
Wiggle ’til you vomit fire
Wiggle ’til it whispers, wiggle ’til it hums
Wiggle ’til it answers, wiggle ’til it comes
So tell me what on earth is this if not a journey into some nightmare. I am not sure what nightmare, and I am certainly not suggesting this is some great work of art but I am saying at this point I can’t make a judgement, because I am just bemused by the whole image. I’ve got werewolves, vampires, and monsters vomiting fire. Are we talking about the classic image of the Devil here? Is this a song about temptation, or black magic?
Certainly if it is, I think it is a song that works. The whole point of the notion of the Devil and temptation in Christian mythology is that the Devil is utterly devious. He twists and turns trying to corrupt your soul. He, one might say, wiggles.
Maybe, maybe not. It’s a tenuous interpretation, but I would say this. It makes a hell of a lot more sense than the “song to his daughter” scenario. If you had a young daughter would you sing her a song about vomiting fire? I really don’t get that notion at all.
As for it being the worst Dylan song, no not for me. It is a great bit of rock and roll music, the words are interesting and ultimately confusing (which is a Dylan trademark) and it has an excellent accompaniment throughout. It is surprising, lively, and unexpected.
I can think of much that is far less interesting in the Dylan repertoire. Indeed before the request for a review of this song came in I was about to have a bash at “Down along the cove” which to me is a very ordinary and rather dull 12 bar blues.
But then, each to his own.