Oh Mercy! Oh Mercy!


by Brian Turner

One of the things that I like most about The Cambridge Bob Dylan Society is it's relaxed atmosphere. As it moves from pub to pub it takes with it that easygoing friendliness that enables even a relative Dylan ignoramus such as myself to feel at home. There I am confident that no one is going to look down their nose at me because my collection is not of the highest calibre, or my knowledge less than intricate. This tolerance and generocity of spirit is encouraged, even insisted upon, by the Master of Ceremonies, Keith, who can spot bullshit from several miles away and does not hesitate to attack it with Exocet wit. The result is that a newcomer such as myself can be unafraid to venture an opinion; which is I suppose, what I am about to do.

It has always amused me to read in various fan magazines, article after article analysing, dissecting, stripping to the bare bones, the works of the greatest singer songwriter of them all. A few are written with imagination and are most enjoyable, but alas, many are clones of each other with the entertainment value of a stamp collector writing a report. How the man himself would be appalled by such dull fare to which, I fear, I am about to add. Sorry Bob, blame it on a whim.

Usually these scribes focus on the more complex works that elevate us; "Mr Tambourine Man", "It's Alright Ma", "Desolation Row" etc. Songs that real enthusiasts can strip down like a Harley Davidson. However, like that noble bike, they look better left alone, examined in detail only over a bottle and with an audience of one. What a hypocrite; here I am, about to become my enemy in the instant that I preach.

While I enjoy the more powerful imagery and melody as much as the next man and like all of you have spent hours wallowing in them, there is a special place somewhere inside me for simplicity in both. Poetry has learned within the last half century that the soul's window does not have to be double glazed; that the deepest feelings can be expressed with an economy of words that actually adds to and does not detract from, the emotion being provoked in the reader.

So it can also be with the songwriter. Although the lyric form of poetry has certain necessary restrictions, it has the advantage of being able to compound it's effect through the music that accompanies it. This is not to belittle the lyric writer as a poet, in fact quite the opposite; so high is the standard of good writing in Rock music, and of a certain gentleman in particular, that I actually prefer listening to his poetry instead of reading it. There are frequent exceptions of course!

Anyway, enough of this; I'm not telling you anything that you don't already know, just putting off the moment. "Shooting Star" is one of my favourite Dylan songs. I love its sorrow and pessimism, the bitter taste of regret fed to you in the simplest terms and with the subtlety of flavour that only good poets and cooks can conjure. I don't like the introduction much, it seems harsh and grating to me but I can't quite put my finger on why. It doesn't matter though, the music is almost incidental until that last beautiful harmonica drags you over the coals, but by then you are so lost in it that he could be playing the paper and comb and it would sound like the London Philharmonic Orchestra. I enjoy the change of pace as "the last firetruck from hell goes rolling by," but it's really all about the words themselves. "If I was still the same, if I ever became what you wanted me to be. Did I miss the mark, overstep the line that only you could see," and later; "tomorrow will be another day, guess it's too late for me to say the things to you that you needed to hear me say," echo as every failure, every missed opportunity, every foolish word you've ever stumbled over goes sliding down your spine like an ice cube. The middle section with it's Christian symbolism, brilliantly describes your world about to disintegrate as you watch helplessly. "It's the last temptation, the last account, last time you might hear the Sermon on the Mount." It's not death but it feels like it; and all the time the words are squeezed out with the brevity of an ascetic.

Perhaps it's just me, maybe you think it's a minor ballad like "Lenny Bruce is Dead" but I somehow doubt it. There's something fundamental in us here being described, an urge to return to the past and change it. Only a few writers know how to prod that particular needle in the most painful manner.

So that's it; my brief, reluctant and public dissection of a Dylan song. Just his handful of words scattered around a mediocre tune but having the impact of a stomach punch delivered with the collective force of all those who have ever mourned the last radio playing.

Now I'm a fully paid up member of the "Stamp Collectors" maybe I should look for another song to pull apart. I can almost hear a groan from the ether: "Don't interpret me".

Signs on the windows

The lyrics to Shooting Star can be found here. 

The Cambridge Bob Dylan Society website can be found here. 

A wonderful website relating to Lenny Bruce can be found here.