Sunday, March 09, 2014


"To Ramona" / Alan Price

Yes, I know the song was written by Bob Dylan. It's from his 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan, a somewhat amusing title in retrospect, since it featured pretty much the same folk-singer side of Bob Dylan that had taken the Greenwich Village clubs by storm in 1961. The only shift was that he was moving away from political protest songs and becoming -- as this song so amply demonstrates -- more personal and poetic. But compared to what happened on his next album, when he "went electric," this was nothing.

To be quite honest, I don't like the Bob Dylan version -- especially not after having heard this tender cover, sung in Alan Price's husky Geordie tenor.

The word is -- and who would ever doubt the word? -- that Bob Dylan wrote this song about Joan Baez. Considering that Alan Price hung out with Dylan and Baez during Dylan's 1965 UK tour, most memorably chronicled in the D. L. Pennebaker documentary Don't Look Back, it seems only fitting that Price should later cover this song on his 1966 album A Price On His Head.

This sure is one hell of an ambivalent, complicated song. Our singer clearly loves this girl, but he's also lost patience with her idealism, her hunger for acceptance. Underneath all the verbiage, it's still a kiss-off song, despite the romantic waltz tempo, the sweetly looping melody. But where Dylan's nasal croon betrays exasperation and disdain, Alan Price's smoky voice adds a note of wistful regret that redeems the whole song. 
Dylan paints her as an innocent rube -- "watery eyes," "cracked country lips," "returnin' / Back to the South" -- which doesn't seem fair when you think of Baez, already a major voice in the folk-protest movement when young Bobby Zimmerman washed up in New York City, fresh from Minnesota.  Sure, some of the bitterness in his voice is explained by knee-jerk protest folkie scorn for the system that's been wasting her soul: "It's all just a dream, babe / a vacuum, a scheme, babe / That sucks you into feelin' like this" and, later in the song,  "fixtures and forces and friends . . . that hype you and type you / Making you feel / That you gotta be just like them." But there's still a cruel personal subtext.
Maybe I'm being unfair to Dylan. No doubt at one point he really did love Joan Baez. ("Your magnetic movements / Still capture the minutes I'm in" -- if that isn't a sexy line, I'll eat my whatever.)   But having seen how badly he treats her in Don't Look Back, I've got my guard up.
For all those word-crammed verses only mask the fact that he's basically given up on her. He blames her for self-sabotage -- "Yet there's no one to beat you / No one to defeat you / 'Cept the thoughts of yourself feeling bad" -- and in the last verse, he washes his hands of her problems: "For deep in my heart / I know there is no help I can bring / Everything passes / Everything changes / Just do what you think you should do." In other words, hasta la vista, baby. 

Yet I think of Alan Price, quitting the Animals at the height of their popularity because touring drove him so crazy, and I sense he is a bit more on the side of the idealistic dreamer than opportunistic Bobby D ever could be. Even as he disengages, there's a rasp of sorrow in his voice as he sings, "And who knows, maybe / That some day baby / I'll come cryin' to you." When Bob Dylan sings this, I don't buy it, but Alan Price's rueful shiver of self-honesty sells it.

Do I think Bob Dylan is a great songwriter? I do indeed. But he's not an artist that touches my heart. Alan Price, on the other hand...

51 DOWN, 1 TO GO

1 comment:

NickS said...

That is a very nice version. I had to listen more than once to be able to follow the words, but once I was used to it (and turned up the volume, which was too low the first time) I appreciated his cadence.

Do I think Bob Dylan is a great songwriter? I do indeed. But he's not an artist that touches my heart.

It's funny, I mostly agree with you -- I've never been a big fan of Bob Dylan, and I don't seek out his music, but that remark still jumped out at me and I was surprised to see you be dismissive.

I guess, for myself, I don't feel like Bob Dylan is entirely to my taste, but he's still somebody I wrestle with. His virtues are so obvious (and, personally, I think he can be an amazing performer, as well as songwriter), that I never feel comfortable in my judgements about him.

... if that isn't a sexy line, I'll eat my whatever.

So, if you don't mind a tangent, one of the things that I've enjoyed about this series is that it makes me conscious of the way that songs play with, or against, the idea of "pop songs about a girl."

So, yesterday, I happened across one that makes a nice tie-in at this point.

The Erin McKeown song Melody about which she writes, "I wrote it years ago, I thought it would be funny to write a song about a girl -- or a metaphor -- named Melody. I knew this song wasn't for the next pop record I was going to make, that it was for a standards project that I would eventually get to."

It's a fun, flirty song, and, speaking of sexy lines, I was impressed at how much punch she packs into the line "... don't you know how flat my songs would be without a Melody." It makes such good use of that frame.

One one hand it references the familiar trope in which a reference to the performers art stands in for their life and soul (for lack of a better word) so I immediately translate that to "how flat my life would be." But, at the same time, it invokes the image of girl as muse, and suggests that her songs would be flat without a person to write for. Finally, taking the Melody/melody metaphor it offers the idea that a person can be as important in ones life as a melody is to a song.

Three different emotionally potent layers in that one line. Very definitely sexy.