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Sunday, April 29, 2018

Master Blueprints # 16: “But Please Tell That to Your Friend in the Cowboy Hat. You Know He Keeps on Sayin’ Ev’rythin’ Twice to Me”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “She’s Your Lover Now”
Album: The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991
Release Date: March, 1991 (recorded in Jan. 1966 for the Blonde on Blonde sessions)

Rolling Stone magazine has Bob Dylan in at # 7 for the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time ( https://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/100-greatest-singers-of-all-time-19691231 ).  When I first glanced at the rating I thought….what’s up with this?  I mean, I love Dylan’s music (hopefully stating the obvious at this point), but I’d never put much thought along this particular line when reflecting on what it is that makes his music superb, and before reading that Rolling Stone list, I could not recall anyone who had ever made such a compelling case for this aspect of his musicianship.  Yeah, maybe toss him in as a courtesy somewhere in the 80s or 90s, but # 7?  Was this not akin to ranking Dylan’s guitar prowess with the likes of Clapton, Hendrix, and Santana? It just did not register at first. 

When it comes to singing, there will always be strong cases made for the likes of Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Van Morrison, Aretha Franklin, Roger Daltrey, Joan Baez, Marvin Gaye, Roy Orbison, Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, Mick Jagger, and Curtis Mayfield and many others.  These musicians are all obviously extremely talented in this regard.  Heck, even Neil Young has gotten the rare nod as a great singer, at least for those of us who have an attuned ear for what many others may consider a vocal delivery akin to shrieking.  With Bob Dylan however, I have always had felt that his singing was more a means to an end and surmised perhaps that even he felt this way. 

However, the Rolling Stone #7 slot got me thinking, and it did not take long before I was changing my tune.  After all…. there has to be a reason why Bob Dylan sings all his own material; this despite the fact that he himself has called his versions blueprints (hence my blog series title).  And then it dawned on me: Dylan sings every single one of his own songs because he knows how honest he is with himself, and in this way he trusts himself to deliver his version of any song first and let the chips fall from there.  Honesty with oneself can be revealing in many ways but I can’t think of any that are more revealing than in how someone delivers a song vocally.  From this point of view, there are few out there who can rival Bob Dylan when it comes to singing.  Rolling Stone Magazine got it right.

All this came to mind this week as I listened to the deep cut “She’s Your Lover Now”, a song from the Blonde on Blonde sessions that did not make the final cut.  Why a blog focus on Bob Dylan’s singing in this song, and not say “Blowin’ in the Wind” – where Dylan is speaking core truths – or “Lay Lady Lay” – where he comes across in a rare comforting sort of way – or “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” – where the day of reckoning is expressed so poignantly - or “Every Grain of Sand” – where deep Faith shines through?  Converse to all those gems, “She’s Your Lover Now”, like its blood relatives “Ballad of a Thin Man”, “Positively 4th Street” “Idiot Wind” and “It’s All Good”, drips with sarcasm, in a way that is both hilarious and downright scary at the same time.  These are not the type of emotions that typically stir the soul, which is what great vocals do.  So what was it that tripped that Dylan-vocals wire in my head this week?  Well I’ve already greased those skids, because….. I did say just say ‘typically’. 

When I think of singers who can express themselves in ironic fashion, Ray Davies immediately comes to mind (“Plastic Man”, “Shangri La”, “David Watts”).  John Lennon is not too far behind (“How Do You Sleep”, “Working Class Hero”).  After that, Bob Dylan is right there in the mix and the song that does it best for me in this regard is “She’s Your Lover Now”.  The lyrics are priceless, and the delivery of them is equally astonishing.  This is a complex song (one of the most complex in Dylan’s catalog), which may be the biggest reason it never made it on Blonde on Blonde.  The version we get on The Bootleg Series cuts off abruptly near the end of the fourth and final stanza, Dylan presumably forgetting the closing lines (although I leave room for this being a slip up with one of the Nashville session guys).  But other than causing it not to make the original classic album it was intended for, it matters not.  The cat is out of the bag by this point of the song.  Every ounce of artistic energy has already been spent. 

Bob Dylan sets the scene brilliantly in “She’s Your Lover Now”.  We are placed in the world of mid-60s counterculture, likely Greenwich Village, New York City, the protagonist in the song laying it all out on the line to a former love interest, who comes across as extremely headstrong and self-absorbed.  And equally on the receiving end of the verbal abuse is her new lover, who kowtows to her egocentric ways.  We get brought into the hip social setting of the day, and there’s a light shed on it that is devoid of praise.  You get the sense that Bob Dylan was on the cusp of heading for the hills (which indeed is what happened less than a year later). 

Out of the gate, Dylan sounds mockingly saccharine with the line “the scene was so cra-zeeee, wasn’t it?” j…..catching lightning in a bottle with one of the hip phrases of the day (when I listen, I’m reminded of Richard Manuel singing “Cuz’ I’m tired of everything being bea-uuuu-tiful, bea-uuuu-tiful” on “Orange Juice Blues”…. same era phrase coming out in sarcastic wit there).  From that point on it’s a relentless surge of ridicule.  There are four or five tempos, verses and bridges going on here but at the core of it all is a recurring toggle of the protagonists attention, first toward his former love interest in the form of indignation, and then toward her current lover in the form of disgust.  When he switches attention to the new lover it’s always with the line “and you….”, as in “and YOU!”.  The listener can almost see him pivot and wave a finger in the poor saps face. 

I love analyzing this song because it’s endlessly entertaining.  One of the early great lines directed at the former love interest goes “Now you stand here expectin’ me to remember something you forgot to say”.  That’s another thing about “She’s Your Lover Now”; we hear anger directed at the laziness of spirit.  Just after that line, the protagonist pivots attention to the new lover for the first time with “Yes, and YOU, I see your still with her, well.  That’s fine ‘cause she’s comin’ on so straaaange can’t you tell”.  The double barrage attack is now becoming apparent.

The second stanza includes my favorite line in the entire song (and also the title of this entry) - directed at the former love interest: “But pleeeease tell that to your friend in the cowboy hat. You know he keeps sayin’ ev’rythin’ twice to me”.  We are all welcomed into the room of the bohemian party scene here, and the big bruiser bouncer type, coming across as a mercenary for the former love interest, looking to lay a beat down on the protagonist for either real or imagined slights (more likely the latter).  The insight to conceive of a line like that is what puts Bob Dylan in a class all his own. 

Later in the stanza there’s this: “Now you stand here sayin’ you forgive and forget. Honey what can I say?”.  So very real: Considering the circumstances, there is really nothing to say.  Again, Bob Dylan, as the protagonist, being true to himself.  And then the 2nd pivot to the new lover: “Yes, you, you just sit around and ask for ashtrays, can’t you reach?  I see you kiss her on the cheek ev’rytime she gives a speech”.  I’m staggered every time I hear it.  And there’s more rollicking verbal abuse immediately after that line, but I’d just be repeating myself with description.

On to the third stanza, which includes the line “Now you stand here while your finger’s goin’ up my sleeve”.  Yow!  There will have to be some reevaluation at some point for that former love interest if she ever hopes to get her life back intact.  And then the 3rd pivot: “and YOU, just what do you do anyway?  Ain’t there nothin’ you can say?”  This is the way it’s written out in the on-line lyrics (as well as Bob Dylan’s book of lyrics).  But when Dylan sings it on the Bootlegs version, I hear “there ain’t nothin you can say”.  Note, there’s no question mark here at the end.  This is a statement of fact.  I like it much more, as well as the notion of how far a simple rearranging of words can make a difference.  This is followed by one of the most mind boggling lines in Bob Dylan’s vast laundry list of lyrics: “She’ll be standin’ on the bar soon. With a fish head an’ a harpoon.  And a fake beard plastered on her brow”.  Dylan howls this out, dragging out the last word.  It’s fascinating, but I don’t even know where to begin with it.  Somebody help!

One thing that makes “She’s Your Lover Now” so effective is one particular transition that resonates in each stanza.  I’ll use the line in the first stanza as an example.  It’s where Dylan sings “Did it have to be that way?” ….with a long drawn out “waaaaaaayyyyy”, where Dylan sings down through several octaves, as if slipping into the deep abyss.  It’s a feeling of hopeless resignation and Bob Dylan makes it so palpable in the way he sings it.  Again, Rolling Stone got it right.

I could not find the Bootlegs version on the internet.  If you’ve never heard it, you’re just going to have to track it yourself (I recommend it).  Another take is here: ( https://vimeo.com/153198336 ).  It’s a solo version, with not as much, ahhh …… venom.  But it carries its own weight. 

Ok, so Bob Dylan’s vocals are top notch. I get it.  An acquired taste, yes, but definitely worth putting the effort in to acquire.  This entry got me thinking though along another line.  Dylan’s musicianship has never been in question, however, if you isolate the argument to how great his guitar playing, piano playing, harmonica playing, what have you, is, you are left thinking that none of it percolates to anywhere near the aficionado realm.  But as with Leonard Cohen, it’s much much deeper than that.  That’s partly what this blog series is about.  To get to the bottom of why --  that --  is.

Pete

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