Odds And Ends: Dylan pushes the band back to its roots

by Jochen Markhorst

On Monday, February 11, 1963, The Beatles record all the songs (plus another, “Hold Me Tight”) for their debut album Please Please Me in 585 minutes. Straightforward, as a live performance, as they also play the songs in the Cavern Club.  Just as Dylan records his first albums and as Dylan and The Band will record their songs in the Big Pink basement. The fun, the zest is evident, the increasing attrition of the vocal cords is audible and the album is just as exciting, fresh and infectious more than half a century later as when it was released on March 27, 1963.

The record is obviously deep in Robbie Robertson’s system. When Dylan, in that mythical summer of ’67, week after week pushes The Band back to the roots, to old blues, folk and country and then somewhere halfway comes up with “Odds And Ends”, the levee breaks. That pace, the rhythm, that chord scheme … we have arrived at Chuck Berry, at Mersey Beat and “Mystery Train”. The rocker Robertson wakes up and automatically the intro splashes out of his guitar: a perfect mash-up of “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Twist And Shout”, of the first and the last song on Please Please Me. In the same flow Robertson inserts the solo: not quite a copy, but still very much à la George Harrison on track 5, on “Boys”.

It speaks for Robertson that, unlike in other memories, he remains modest in his autobiography Testimony. “Meanwhile, Bob ripped off another gem on the typewriter called Odds and Ends and we tore that one up in the basement before Bob had to go home for dinner.” Levon Helm, who not yet has joined the men, has on return the distance to recognize the unusual class of the song:

I could tell that hanging out with the boys had helped Bob to find a connection with things we were interested in: blues, rockabilly, R&B. They had rubbed off on him a little. There was a great rock and roll song called Odds and Ends.

(Levon Helm, Wheels On Fire, 1993)

Helm is right, it is a great rock ‘n’ roll song, but most commentaries pay little attention to it. They mainly stay with the text. In general, there is agreement that Dylan shakes from his trouser leg some loose relational wailing and some vague sexual ambiguities, plus one poetic, Dylan-worthy one-liner: Lost time is not found again.

The vast majority of the lyrics indeed seem little inspired and even less thought-out, but then again: the narrative perspective is original. A male blues singer singing from the perspective of the cheated woman is not that common.

Spilling the juice has been an established metaphor for sexual intercourse since Robert Johnson’s “Traveling Riverside Blues” (1937):

You can squeeze my lemon 'til the juice run down my
('til the juice run down my leg, baby, you know what I'm talking about)

… from which Dylan, as part of that same action, paraphrases that you know what I’m talking about (‘You know what I’m sayin’ and you know what I mean’).

But the protagonist in “Odds And Ends” is the receiving party of the juice, so if we assume for the sake of convenience that the poet does not have a sudden outpouring of gay-emancipatory fighting spirit, that narrator is a woman. A woman who venomously blames the man for not living up to his promises, for only using her for the satisfaction of his physical needs, and who now, in the third, last verse, advises him to pull up his pants again without having accomplished his mission and to seek his relief elsewhere.

Memphis Minnie emerges. The song fits effortlessly into her repertoire, somewhere between “I Don’t Want That Junk Outa You”, “Keep On Goin’” and “Hoodoo Lady”. Only that Dylanesque Lost time is not found again would be alienating.

Not in Dylan’s catalogue, obviously. In the very nice commercial video for IBM, Dylan talks to ‘Watson’, the computer that claims that he has analyzed all Dylan songs and has been able to filter out two recurring themes: the Passing of Time and the Fading of Love. In the video an amused Dylan does not contradict (“That sounds about right”), and a spokeswoman (Laurie Freedman of IBM) claims that it is really true; Watson really has analyzed Dylan’s entire oeuvre and really distilled these two Big Themes.

Superficially browsing through Dylan’s catalogue supports it – the word time is high up in the Top 10 of most used nouns. And especially in the songs that were written just before the motorcycle accident on June 29, 1966, when Dylan’s life is approaching the centre of an exhausting vortex of performances, recordings, drug use and sleep deprivation. The poet does not have to dig too deeply; time is a thing, these days. The word emerges in nine of the fourteen songs on Blonde On Blonde, for example, and in the rejected “I’ll Keep It With Mine” the I-figure even seems to be begging for the time he spent in “Pledging My Time” so generously:

But if I can save you any time
Come on, give it to me
I’ll keep it with mine.

The beautiful, aphoristic Lost time is not found again, although it may have been thoughtlessly shaken out of Dylan’s sleeve, and even though it is somewhat misplaced in those otherwise little poetic lyrics, does build a bridge between Blonde On Blonde and the sense of displacement on John Wesley Hardin.

Poetic force the aphorism owes not only to the seeming familiarity and the recognizable beauty of the expression, but also to its literary roots. After all, it varies, not too different, on the title of Proust’s magnum opus, on À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu.

The last part of it, Le temps retrouvé (‘Time regained’) is a comforting reply to Dylan’s dispirited one-liner. The bard seems susceptible to it: from the nineties onwards he actively searches for the lost times and starts recovering, re-creating, retrieving the temps perdu. First by digging up old songs and recording them again, without modern fuss (Down In The Groove and Good As I Been To You), then by recreating the sound of the first half of the twentieth century more and more fanatically (“Sugar Baby” on “Love And Theft” is a good example) and finally, like the storyteller in Proust’s novel, when he puts down his memories on paper: in October 2004 the first volume of his autobiography, Chronicles, is published.

Therein, the influence of Proust is detectable. Like that great French novel, Dylan’s work is an associative work about an I-person whose intellectual and artistic growth is documented on the basis of a mosaic of memories. The truly identifiable connection, however, lies within a bit of cut and paste work by the Nobel laureate, as Dr Edward M. Cook from Washington has shown. In part 2, À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, Dylan apparently has marked two phrases (‘I caught a glimpse of the sea through the leafy boughs of trees’ and ‘I was no longer near enough to the sea which seemed to me not a living thing now, but fixed; I no longer felt any power beneath its colours’), and transfers them to Chronicles:

Walking back to the main house, I caught a glimpse of the sea through the leafy boughs of the pines. I wasn’t near it, but could feel the power beneath its colors.

(Chronicles, Chapter 4 ‘Oh Mercy’)

Illustrating that Dylan is serious about the verse that he sings about nine hundred times, most of all, in the twenty-first century. That is the core phrase from “Summer Days” (which is relatively, taking into account the song’s age, Dylan’s most played song – on average 51,1 per year since 2001):

She says, “You can’t repeat the past.” I say, “You can’t? What do you mean, you can’t? Of course you can.”

A line that, entirely in style, in itself is a repetition of the past, regained from the lost time: it comes from The Great Gatsby of F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925.

Interesting, the relevance that such a single, carelessly written down line from a throwaway song appears to have half a century later, but it does detract from the real strongholder of the song: the pure rock ‘n’ roll fun of a relaxed club thoroughbred musicians. Although not infectious or inspiring enough, apparently; hardly any covers have been produced.

Apart from the usual, and usually hardly uplifting, versions of tribute artists, they can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Usual suspects Coulson, Dean, McGuinness, Flint are the first, on their unsurpassed Dylan tribute Lo And Behold! (1972). Producer Manfred Mann clearly also heard The Beatles in the song and lets the men, even more than The Band, turn it into a Beatles rocker. Ringo-like drums, handclapping and a sax solo of the type that Paul McCartney loves to insert, a bathroom reverberation over the vocals à la John Lennon and as icing on the cake Harrisons guitar solo from “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”.

The English Italian Emanuele Fizzotti is less adventurous, but no less fun – an old-fashioned blues rocker with an iron stomp, sparkling harmonica and the obligatory guitar and piano solo, which makes the song last almost twice as long – and that’s no problem at all (Manny’s Blues, 2012).

 

The best cover comes from Dylan’s native region, from the neighbourhood of Minneapolis, and is from The Gated Community, a band that stands out with infectious cowpunk and joyous country folk. From “Odds And Ends” they make a speedy, dynamic country swing with – very bold – a self-written, very fitting bridge (on Country Hymn, 2016).

Exciting and fresh like good old Please Please Me, actually.

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