Waitin' for You
Summer is here, and the living is easy. Teaching is a wonderful profession...when it stops. The first week of the summer holidays is like being released from prison: you just walk round smiling, looking at the sky, in a state of complete denial that September will ever come. Let joy be unconfined.
And Bob has given us a brilliant song to waltz around in our brains this summer. I wrote last month about Waitin' for You, the new track on the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood soundtrack CD, but I realized afterwards that I had overlooked lots of things about it, in my tired and befuddled condition at the end of term. It's still spinnin' round and round in my head, so I'd like to share some more thoughts on it.
The lyrics aren't yet up on bobdylan.com, so above are the words that I hear. There are only a few that I'm not sure of. The whisky flowin' into my head could be flyin', which would be even more dramatic, and would suit the crazy, drunken waltzing of the tune. And I can't tell whether it's made or meant in the second line, but it doesn't significantly affect the meaning.
I said last month that the song has a queasy waltz-time carnival swing, and that becomes even more dominant on repeated hearings. My copy of Series of Dreams came this morning and has a quote from T Bone Burnett explaining how the song came to be written as a waltz:
Mad is the key word here. The song swings in like a corny vaudeville romp, like a band desperately sawing away at the end of a long tipsy night, playing in front of a fly-blown garishly-painted canvas backdrop. Like the Basement Tapes cover photo sprung to life, all the fairground freaks standing gawping as the band stand their ground, but only just, in the blustering gaslights, in the midst of the madness. It's a hot, even feverish, night in the middle of summer (Midsummer's Night?), the whisky is flowing (or flying) and the band has played for so long or with so much gusto that the fiddler's arm has gone dead (or perhaps it's because of the whisky?). Think of all the summer and heat references on Time Out of Mind and "Love and Theft", and this song fits in perfectly with all of them.
This particular night has a thousand hearts, and eyes, the hearts and eyes of those in the band's audience. Here, Dylan uses his old familiar trick of turning what at first seems like just another hackneyed cliché into something with a peculiar new twist (it reminded me of Richard Goldstein's lovely aphorism, quoted by Michael Gray in Song and Dance Man: "Dylan approaches a cliché like a butcher eyes a chicken").(1) The original, muchused saying is, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, from the English poet and playwright John Lyly's "The Mayde's Metamorphosis", written in 1600: The night hath a thousand eyes. By giving the audience hearts, as well as eyes, Dylan enlivens his audience - they're not just passive watchers, they're blood-pumping three-dimensional characters with a lifetime's worth of feelings, and hopes that vanish but never quite die completely - and he stresses the change he's made to the cliché by making a distinct pause in the line:
There's also, of course, the old confusion of "eyes" and "I"s: each of the hearts belongs to a conscious self, an "I", with its own perspectives. Moreover, the rhythms of the heart are right at the heart of the song, so central that they affect the phrasing of lines. Earlier, the singer's own heart has been mentioned, with a very emphatic line break emphasising its pulse:
The pause in Dylan's voice is so subtle, but so telling: the heart really does begin to beat.
It would be very easy to miss the subtlety in Waitin' for You. It's in a subtext, in the phrasing, in the lyrical details. I mentioned last month the way the word "spread" (Talk is beginning to spread) is extended and stretched so that it quite literally spreads itself across the end of the line. It's also in the vocal sounds around the words. There are acres of meaning in the dragged-out full-throated Ah at the beginning of the line the poor girl always wins the day, in which you can hear every nuance of the damage done to Dylan's vocal cords over the years. Try listening to just that one sound, several times, and see what you hear within it. That line also resonates in other ways. The "poor girl", who doesn't need to be rich or well-to-do (a bit of comic tautology there), takes me straight back to a "Po' Boy", and although she may win the day, and she is being allowed to have her way here, the singer is still hoping to win the night, and have his way there.
When I first heard it, the second thing that struck me (after the whirling tune) was the very obviousness of the rhymes, their simplicity and predictability. Some people chose to use this as a basis for criticising some of the songs on "Love and Theft": Dylan doesn't seem to want any more to give us startling, original rhyming schemes. What we have here are basic, almost all monosyllabic, rhymes:
The only rhyme that is pushed at all is mind/line at the end of the song (of which more later).
But as I tried to say last month, the importance is not in the rhymes themselves but the way in which they form a construct that underpins the setting and atmosphere of the song. If it were, as it sets itself out, a vaudeville, old-timey song, played to an unsophisticated audience out for a good time at the end of a hard-working week, it would have a very simple structure. Just as the song must be good for dancing to, the song must at least pretend to be good for singing along to. You can almost feel the singer encouraging the audience to sway and sing along. Even the chorus is heavily signposted. Listen to the heavy pause before When did our love go bad? Do you remember when the lyrics of songs were printed on television with a little bouncing ball that hopped along the top of the words so you could sing along? That's exactly how this feels.
The more I listen to it, and look at the printed words, the more there is in it. The words are a perfect match to the tune. As the tune whirls and circles like the hurdy-gurdy of a fairground ride, the lyrics stress the "aroundness" of the singer's relationship to his "gal" (and what a very telling little word that is, placing the situation in time and place exactly, with just three letters). Freedom rings, again using a circling image. His senses, and those of others around him, are heightened - although not, as in the case of the fiddler, overused to the point of exhaustion. There is seeing and saying, tasting and touching:
Is it the tune, or the drink, or the heat, or the strength of his feelings, that's overloading his senses, making him dizzy? Whatever it is, it isn't the desperate whirling of earlier Dylan songs like No Time to Think, where a neverending, spiralling tune straightjacketed the singer and left him no hope of redemption. Here, it's the jaded but still jaunty swing of someone not prepared to give up, someone who's seen/heard/felt the worst of times but still has surviving hope. He's saying I'm stayin' ahead of the game - which reminded me of all the reviews of "Love and Theft" and the recent shows, which have said how Dylan is at the moment "on top of his game".
And more importantly, perhaps, he's allowing us the recognition that we will make it through, too. Throughout the song we have had a characteristic swinging of the lyrics between the first and second person, but the final verse is very firmly directed straight at us:
What we, and he, transcend is the dead weight of the clichés: they can be transformed. Another deal gone down, another man done gone... this could be just a cliché-ridden singin'-the-blues-my-gal-done-left-me song, but it isn't. We put up with the clichés, and can move through and beyond them. Not only would he bet the whole world on that, but everything in it as well. The mass of everything in it is so momentous that the lyrics have to be bundled into the line to cram them all in. That's the difference between drowning in the swirling waltztime and the whisky, and dancing through them. Even the simplest of media - a pounding waltz and simplistic rhyming word pairs that my seven year-old-pupils could write - can convey a crucial message.
Going back to the cliché-as-chicken-being-slaughtered analogy, Waitin' for You gives us some of Bob at his most economical and razor-sharp. These chickens aren't bludgeoned or set up like a fairground coconut shy for their heads to be blown off (as in the scene I can never watch in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), but delicately, surgically stilettoed by an artist who's lost none of his deftness. It's all the more impressive for being smokescreened by the apparent simplicity of the medium: you've got to look and listen closely and carefully to see the intricacies of the art going on beneath.
I decided to write again about this song when I realized the cleverness of these lines, which I had missed before:
The pun on state, of course, overturns the whole "crossing the state line" cliché. The archaic sound of the first line (...but a state of mind) is juxtaposed neatly against the modern Americanism of the concept of a state line as a border. And it sums up the empowerment of the song. I was reminded of what Christopher Ricks once said about Dylan and cliché:
What Bob is saying, it seems to me is that it's not life, and the banal unhappinesses it throws at us - all the old clichés of loss and betrayal - that determine whether or not we can be happy: the power is within us all, at any time, to reframe our circumstances, in the same way as we can reinvigorate language, and therefore to triumph, to stay ahead of the game. And when we get there, he'll be waiting for us.
I could write reams about the way the song fits in beautifully with the other tracks on the CD. The whole thing is just wonderful. The three Jimmy Reed songs are great; ghostly and powerful, just the way Dylan likes his Blues, and the harmonica playing blows you away. In Little Rain, you can hear footsteps running away, so eerily it gives you the shivers, even in the warmest of summer evenings. It has exactly the feeling of alienation and otherworldliness that Dylan captured in Standing in the Doorway and Not Dark Yet and all of the songs on "Love and Theft", and there is a guitar riff that is pure 1965 Dylan. Slim Harpo's "I Got Love if You Want It" is also great Blues singing and harp playing.
All of the songs have an essential integrity, with the possible exception of the Alison Krauss track, which I personally find a bit fey, although it has a nice instrumentation. The Richard and Linda Thomson track, a lovely slow version of Dimming of the Day, ought to stand out like a sore thumb because of its non-Americanness in a very American context, but it doesn't and is beautiful. There are lots of Dylan connections throughout: David Mansfield, Jim Keltner and Fred Tackett feature on various tracks.
In a fabulous piece of Dylan synchronicity, the last track on the CD (by Bob Schneider), which is the one that follows Waitin' for You, starts with words that sum up everything that Dylan is doing brilliantly at the moment:
Dylan gets closer than anyone else to describing that universe.
1. Michael Gray: Song and Dance Man (Abacus 1973 p.219). The quote comes from a Village Voice review. Michael Gray has a useful section, in the early versions of Song and Dance Man, on Dylan's use of cliché. Song and Dance Man III refers to "...one of Dylan's greatest strengths: his capacity for modernising and colloquialising an archaic and formal line or phrase" and his "updating and re-charging, with a surge which both brings out the essentials of the old and adds new layers of meaning" (see p.242n.).
2. Christopher Ricks: Clichés and American English in Thomson, E. and Gutman, D. (eds) : The Dylan Companion (various editions). See also Ricks' Clichés That Come to Pass, in Gray, M., and Bauldies, J. : All Along the Telegraph (also various editions), which first appeared in The Telegraph no.15
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