Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Dylan Album Project: John Wesley Harding

John Wesley Harding (1967)

This failed concept album came out after Christmas but before New Year’s, so it didn’t chart until 1968. While it made a huge splash on the singles chart, a few months later Jimi Hendrix would have the biggest hit of his career with a cover of “All Along the Watchtower,” the most well-known song on John Wesley Harding. That song recounts Isaiah 21:5-9, and much of John Wesley Harding has Biblical origins, usually in books of prophecy from the Old Testament. “Wicked Messenger” and “Drifter’s Escape” have strong Biblical ties, for instance. What Dylan does, though, is reset the song in a young, rugged America. In “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” Christ’s betrayal occurs in a saloon/whore house. In “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” the ghost of St. Augustine appears in a revelation to the narrator, but the song’s structure is borrowed wholesale from the labor ballad “Joe Hill.” “As I Went Out One Morning” finds that song’s protagonist trying to free a Mary Magdelinesque from the chains Tom Paine has wrapped around her. The album is a series of conceits dealing with the nature of sin and redemption, straddling two epochs and holding onto both….. until the last two songs. The album was recorded with Dylan alternately on guitar, piano and harmonica, Charlie McCoy on bass and Kenneth Buttrey on drums. It had an understated but powerful, almost scary, feel to it. Then Peter Drake had to come in and put his pedal steel all over the last two songs. “Down Along the Cove” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” are two head-over-heels love songs that stand in stark contrast to the rest of the album’s doom and gloom. They also point the way to his next album, the ubercountry Nashville Skyline. John Wesley Harding would have been the ultimate concept album were it not for how it ends, but if you can’t say it was a great concept album, you can say that it killed psychedelia. The Beatles were riding high on Sgt. Pepper’s, experimentation for experimentation’s sake, and Dylan thought they were using the studio to mask lackluster songwriting. They were throwing everything at the wall to see what stuck rather than setting up a strong song and then decorating it. Dylan reportedly told Paul McCartney to go back to singing “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” and John Wesley Harding shows Dylan’s dedication to taking a direct approach. The stripped down arrangements are extremely direct and the Beatles postponed the release date of their next project, and by the time The Beatles came out it had ballooned into a double album filled with songs like “Rocky Raccoon,” “Mother Nature’s Son,” and “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” that had the stamp of Harding’s influence all over them. Dylan was right, too, in many ways. Sgt. Pepper’s is a great listen, but try to play “Getting Better,” “Fixing a Hole,” or “Good Morning, Good Morning” with just you and a guitar and it is going to sound like shit. All of the songs on John Wesley Harding are nearly played with just that instrumentation and they are powerful and direct. Certainly “When I’m 64” and “A Day In the Life” are strong compositions, but not everything on that album is up to their level ... it just sounds like it is. It is said if you turn the cover of John Wesley Harding upside down, you can see the Beatles faces carved into the tree behind Dylan. Not only was Dylan just maybe playing tricks with the album cover (you can see the faces, but I think it’s pure coincidence), he was also back to writing liner notes, albeit briefly. This time he wrote, in the style of the album, a short narrative that acts as an allegory for the three wiseman coming to pay their respects to baby Jesus.

Best song: As I Went Out One Morning – This particular selection was agonizing. “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” is really great lyrically, but not that interesting musically. “Dear Landlord” is one of the most soulfully performed songs in Dylan’s catalog. It is so bare yet so powerful, and Dylan’s piano playing is moving as he pleads with his spiritual landlord to give him a chance to make amends. In the end, though, Charlie McCoy’s bass playing brings me back to “As I Went Out One Morning,” a strange tale indeed. The narrator comes upon a girl who is chained up. She wants free, but he has the feeling she’ll harm him for her freedom at the first chance she gets. She is beautiful, but untrusting. As they talk, Tom Paine rides up and apologizes, saying “I’m sorry for what she’s done.” This is the type of song that gets criticized by Dylan fans as reducing a woman to either goddess or villain, both essentialized notions. One thing that line of reasoning misses on this particular song, though, is that the woman is not the focus of the song – how Tom Paine treats her is the focus. Also, she isn’t necessarily a villain. We expect that she might do something, yet she’s done nothing but stand there and plead for her freedom. Paine sees her as a villain, obviously, but that doesn’t mean it’s so.

Worst song: I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight – For me, it had to be one of the last two songs. This has been memorably covered by just about everyone and is a classic, but it is still one of the most simplistic love songs Dylan has written. “Down Along the Cove,” the albums other pedal-steel love song, has more drive in the performance, so it edges this one out.

Best outtake: N/A

Notable live rendition: Drifter’s Escape – Dylan has had success with a couple songs from John Wesley Harding on the Never-Ending Tour. One of my favorite transformations was a hard rock version of “Drifter’s Escape,” which may have been influenced by the Hendrix version of “Watchtower,” which has been the blueprint for every Dylan live version of that song, which is his most performed track.

Rhymes: be/Eternity; ice/Paradise (1-2 from “Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”); speak/unique (“Dear Landlord”); mud/blood (“I Pity the Poor Immigrant”); matter/flatter (“The Wicked Messenger”)

Images: “fiery breath” (“I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”); “foaming at the mouth he began to make his midnight creep” (“Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”); “a bolt of lightning struck the courthouse out of shape” (“Drifter’s Escape”); “heaven is like ironsides” “builds his town with blood” (4-5 from “I Pity the Poor Immigrant”)

Axioms: “Life is but a joke” (“All Along the Watchtower”); “Nothing is revealed;” “Don’t go mistaking Paradise for that home across the road” (2-3 from “Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”); “you’ve suffered much, but in this you are not so unique” (“Dear Landlord”); “Stay free from petty jealousies, live by no man’s code and keep your judgment for yourself” (“I Am A Lonesome Hobo”)

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