Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Dylan Album Project: "Love and Theft"

“Love and Theft” (2001)

In one of the interviews Dylan gave around the time of this album’s release, he was asked which other album of his it most reminded him on, and he answered Greatest Hits. It is easy to see why, though “Love and Theft” is richer not only in scope and unity, as most albums are when compared to compilations, but also in variety and sound. This album moves from rockabilly to swing to country to blues to hard rock to pre-war pop. It has it all, and it pulls it from different sources.

The album’s title is a key to its creation. For the most part, the lyrics are appropriated – from knock-knock jokes, from poetry, from Japanese gangster novels – without attribution. The album’s titled is borrowed from a book by Eric Lott on blackface minstrelsy. Lott’s thesis is that white men want the black man’s mythologized penis, and so the act of blackface is a way for them to try to steal what they love about blacks, and that this underlying Freudian desire is really just a symbol for whites making white culture by stealing and then “sanitizing” black culture. I don’t think “Love and Theft” is as interested in race, but it does hinge on the idea of stealing what one loves in order to make something new out of it.

This album was released on 9/11. It was the height of the Napster/Bear Share/whatever other file sharing service was the flavor of the week movement, and I’d had the album for three or four days by the time the twin towers got hit. I think I was singing “Floater (Too Much To Ask)” to myself as I strolled into my first class of the day and saw what was happening on the TV. Immediately, once that connection is made, it is easy to read the album as prophetic – “sky full of fire, pain pourin’ down” – as well as the sadly inevitable responses of the United States – “my captain he’s decorated, he’s well schooled and he’s skilled; he’s not sentimental at all, don’t bother him how many of his pals have been killed” and, perhaps more tellingly, “I’m here to create the new imperial empire.” Maybe he was capturing the zeitgeist before it was there, but that doesn’t seem to be the point. As concepts, love and theft act as opposites. Usually, if one thieves something they covet it, because true love never takes, but what Dylan is stealing doesn’t take away from the original source, and may deepen it by associating it with other sources.

This returns me to the album’s title, and its significance. The first time I heard these songs, I heard them on different days. I heard “Po Boy” first, and it seemed (and still seems) strange. It was, I believe, an authorized posting. Then there was a promotional forty-five with “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” backed with “Bye and Bye,” so those came early too. I got two or three songs a day. When I got them all, I sequenced it and I remember being taken aback by the strong amount of juxtaposition. At first, I saw it as alphabetical. In “Lonesome Day Blues,” Dylan sings “I wish my mother was still alive.” His mother had died in 2000. Then in “Floater,” the next song, he sings “I’m in love with my second cousin,” which is among the most off-putting lines in the history of popular music, though maybe one of the truest in the sense that it represents a kind of truth; it certainly isn’t autobiographical since nothing here is. It is, though, an autobiography of American culture; a recasting of what we’ve produced and what we’ve stolen.

The more one listens to “Love and Theft,” the more one realizes how much of it is borrowed. In those first days, I listened to “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” a lot. It was featured in a television commercial starring Ricky Jay as a poker dealer. Of course the titled was a reference to Alice In Wonderland, and a few years later, on a bootleg of Elvis Presley performing on the Louisiana Hayride in 1954, I discovered it was also the title of another song. It’s a song about sibling rivalry, and about fratricide. It is no wonder they are “living in the land of Nod,” where Cain went after slaying Abel. The first time through the song, the opening of the second verse has them “taking a streetcar named Desire.” A few lines later, Tweedle Dum says “his master’s voice is calling me,” perhaps trying into the Biblical reference of Nod, but certainly coming not out of the Bible but from a record on the RCA Victor label. A small terrier obediently sits next to an old gramophone, the horn pointed in his face. Beneath the picture, the caption reads “his master’s voice.” A verse or so later, “I got love for you honey, and its all in vain” makes better use of Robert Johnson’s “Love In Vain” than Dylan’s 1978 disaster “Is Your Love In Vain?,” and surprises by using “and” where “but would seem more appropriate; this slight avoidance of cliché is what Michael Gray refers to as “minimizing the badness.” A couple months later, the music was found to be lifted from Johnnie & Jack Anglin’s “Uncle John’s Bongos.” It is my contention that every line, every song title, every melody is borrowed from somewhere. The album is then a cultural quilt. It is the work, quite literally, of everyman. Every month or so, I uncover another allusion. I don’t think there is a method to it, necessarily, or that it is fully constructed, but it doesn’t need to be. It is conceptually courageous enough that even if parts are a mismashed Frankenstein of sources, the whole transcends that as a statement of what is.

Of course, my love for this album may be dependent on it being the first Dylan album release that was in itself an event for me. It may be that I like the concept so much I’m able to forgive what is truly a crappy album. I don’t think so, though, and the amount of people who love this album, many of them loving it more than their predecessor, bear me out. My experience is also that everyone who loves this album has a different favorite song on it, which may be what makes it most like a greatest hits album.

Best song: Floater (Too Much to Ask) – A very strange song, almost Victorian, but it encapsulates so much of what makes “Love and Theft” great. It feels like a string of non sequitirs, but it creates its own world. It blends humor with sorrow, family with solitude, privilege with luck, and of course it conflates high and low culture. Shakespeare shows up all over this album with various songs containing references to at least five of his plays – Othello, Hamlet, Measure by Measure, As You Like It and, in this song, Romeo and Juliet. Instead of the tragically doomed young lovers, blind to the world beyond them, Dylan casts them as an old married couple, whom senility has allowed to be honest as Romeo tells Juliet her face has suffered with age. Not only does Dylan turn them into low culture – just the butt of a joke about aging – when Juliet tells Romeo “you can’t just shove off if it bothers you so much” it is a more American gesture than anything Maria could have hoped to pull off in West Side Story.

Worst song: Lonesome Day Blues – This probably tends to be the third most popular song on the album, after “High Water” and “Mississippi,” and though lyrically it has some nice twists, including two verses based on parts taken out of Huck Finn and another based on a combination of the Travel Channel’s Great Vacation Homes and Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza.

Live version: High Water (For Charlie Patton) – On the album version, this opens with simply the most menacing banjo line ever produced. It drives hard, full of furious jabs. It is my favorite part of the album. In this rendition, it is a wholly different beast. Recorded at Bonnaroo in 2004 rocks as hard as “Honest With Me,” the toughest song on “Love and Theft.

Rhymes: bones/grindstone (“Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum”); sublime/rhyme (“Mississippi”); happiness/repossessed (“Bye and Bye”); crimson/limbs and (“Moonlight”); blanket/drank it (“Po’ Boy”)

Images: “sky full of fire, pain pouring down” (“Mississippi”); “timber, two-foot-six across, burns with the bark still on” (“Floater (Too Much to Ask)”); “coffins droppin’ in the street like balloons made out of lead” (“High Water (For Charlie Patton)”); “the earth and sky that melts with flesh and bone;” “the trailing moss in mystic glow, the purple blossoms soft as snow” (4-5 from “Moonlight”)

Axioms: “I’m going to teach peace to the conquered; I’m going to tame the proud” (“Lonesome Day Blues”); “my grandmother could sew new dresses out of old cloth” (“Floater (Too Much To Ask)”); “You say my eyes are pretty and my smile is nice? Well, I’ll sell ‘em to you at a reduced price” (“Honest With me”); “I’ll die before I turn senile” (“Cry Awhile”); “I got my back to the Son cause the light is too intense” (“Sugar Baby”)

No comments: