Pete's Blog

Story Songs

Jon Sands, the drummer on my "New Hope and Wise Virgins" album, also played with songwriter Aimee Mann. He told me about a tour they did opening for Bob Dylan, when Dylan was more outgoing - even garrulous - than Jon expected. According to Jon, the Voice of His Generation plopped himself down next to Aimee Mann before a show one afternooon and rasped, "Ya know what I hate? STORY SONGS!" To which Mann replied, "Well, it's your own fault." This is fair criticism, just barely. Dylan's songs usually contain some kind of narrative, usually hidden. Most are travelogues of a sort, mapping changing states of mood, outlook, or psyche with tantalizing details of geography or time thrown in either to enlighten or confuse. "Visions of Johanna" is a good example. It moves around New York City (the subway, museums, the Fulton Street Fish Market) with the same restlessness as the narrator trying to forget his old girlfriend in an increasingly frantic round of new sensations. Dylan is usually able to avoid the story-song trap of "First this happened and then that happened," but not always. "Lily. Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" is turgid in its storytelling. So is "Brownsville Girl." And "Ballad in Plain D" is plain embarrassing, so much so that Dylan himself has had to disown it publicly, the only time I've heard him express regret for writing anything. One way he'll turn a story song into something less straightforward is by revising the verse order. "All Along the Watchtower" seems to have its first verse shifted to the end, if his habit of titling the other songs on that album ("John Wesley Harding") by their first lines is any indication. And the song develops into something much more chilling and ominous if you start with the scene-setting verse, then respond with "There must be some way out of here" and finish with "The hour is getting late."

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