Saturday, November 08, 2008

Maybe It’s Just the Coffee

Or it could be that Southern California’s enjoying our secret perfect November weather (68 degrees right now, sunny and clear, no wind) that we never mention to anyone else or they’d all want to vacation here even in the late fall, when we’d prefer to see the beach roads empty and open for high-speed riding.

Whatever it is, I’m enjoying my Saturday morning.

For one thing, I just had a chance to sit and (with only one interruption when the phone rang, a work call) really enjoy the newest Dylan release, free from Amazon when I downloaded it a few days ago but now they want 99¢ for the privilege. It’s a track from his latest collection of takes that didn’t fit anywhere else.

I’ve loved this lyric since Sheryl Crow became the first to release it on an album, back in 1998. The song reworks a series of careworn blues tropes, knitting them into what could be seen as the latest in Dylan’s song cycle of escaped loves, an occasional series that goes back easily as far as “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and probably before, sweeping up through “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Isis,” “Something’s Burning,” “Brownsville Girl” and others.

A lot of the source material in this case comes not from old lovers’ ballads but from prison songs. The refrain (“only one thing I did wrong/ stayed in Mississippi a day too long”) can be found in more than one chain-gang song from Alan Lomax’s groundbreaking collections of work chants from Mississippi’s infamous Parchman prison farm. The original sense is of having been trapped by the law for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

(Funny variations: Compare that to the story behind Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles,” as explained by David Bromberg in this performance.)

Dylan keeps the quiet dread of realizing he’s been caught in a chain of events he can’t change, but he turns the haunting old phrases about jail time and uses them to describe a doomed love.

I loved Sheryl Crow’s version of it when I first heard it—pegged it as a Dylan lyric before I ever looked at the credits, in fact. Dylan didn’t release it until a few years later. You get the sense he liked the song enough to keep hammering at it, but he never got happy with how it came out on tape.

Speaking of being caught in events that are spiraling out of control, Dylan finally put out a version of the song on his next album, which was released the same day the World Trade Center towers fell in New York City.

He’s released two more takes in his latest collection, charting his attempts to put it in a form he liked. I haven’t bought the album, but when Amazon posted the single track free earlier this week, I was happy to pick it up. Listening to it I am struck, as I often am these days, at what a master guitar player Bob Dylan has become even as his voice struggles to keep going. In his early career he strummed; by the mid-1970s his technique got nimbler as he picked up tricks from experience and other players; but in recent years his fingers are relaxed and expressive, turning out lines as deft as anything he’s ever phrased in words.

And of course I’m reminded that this is one of my favorite Dylan lyrics of recent years. To me it knits better into a coherent piece than many of his recent pieces, which to my ears sound more like lots of clever couplets strung together. Just like the old prison songs, he leaves out most of the details—the accused man tells the story he wants you to hear.

So it was a pleasure to sit and sip at that with my morning coffee. The other treat I’d been saving until I had time to enjoy it properly was this interview with Lance Armstrong from last week’s Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco. What’s a cyclist doing at a tech trade show? I’ll let you listen for yourself. It’s fun to hear him talk football, and to hear him describe how when he and George W. went out on mountain bikes Lance “completely kicked his ass.”

And it’s always interesting to hear how a younger rider (he’s only 37) is approaching the coming season. Look at his resolve when he pivots midstream and tells the interviewer, “I can come back if I want to,” and you see why a fresh-faced pup like Linus Gerdemann is backpedaling on his previous smack talk about Lance’s return. That’s the face Jan Ullrich (in white) saw when Lance looked back at him at the foot of the Alpe d’Huez in 2001, just before the German got left in the gravel and the dust.

Also fascinating to hear Armstrong’s peripheral takes on recent presidential politics. It had never crossed my mind to think of the similarities between Lance’s formative years and Barack Obama’s. Both were born to teenage mothers whose husbands left them soon after. Hardly a unique story, or even an unusual one, but when you see someone else make a go of it whose history is similar to yours, sometimes you start to think of other things you may have in common.

Maybe it’s just the coffee that makes this such a relaxed morning, or maybe it’s the warm breeze drifting lazily through the window blinds, or maybe it’s the music, but whatever it is, it’s nice to bask in the light that fills a Saturday.


Andrew Shields said...

Mississippi was immediately one of my faves on Love and Theft (along with Po' Boy and Sugar Baby) back in 01.

I'd say it's about time for him to whip up a few more new tunes! The last three batches have been so damn good.

Papa Bradstein said...

I'm glad you had the time to write. It's nice to hear from you like this again. Another funny take on that song is Johnny Cash's story about Starkville. They're gonna get you.