If not for you, my ride’d pall
IT is a bright and early Saturday morning on Sydney’s upper north shore and I have to drive my daughter 30km across town for a hockey game. The journey will take us southwest, through suburbs such as Homebush, Strathfield and Lakemba, then southeast as we swing down into Sutherland Shire. We’ll cross the Parramatta River and the Georges River twice before we see home again.
In Saturday morning traffic, this normally would be an onerous prospect. But today we have a treat in store.
During the week, I have received an important package from Amazon. com: Biograph , Bob Dylan’s three- CD compilation featuring greatest hits along with live and unreleased material.
When Biograph was released in 1985, it was hailed as a magisterial summation of an unparalleled career. At the time we had no idea there were albums as important, and starkly different, as Oh Mercy ( 1989) or Time Out of Mind ( 1997) still on the horizon. Obviously, I’ve listened before to Biograph , which was the first career- retrospective boxed set and started a whole sub- industry of the music business. It was originally released on five vinyl discs and later on three cassettes, but I haven’t listened to it since I junked all our audiotapes.
When I ran out of existing fans to talk to about Dylan, I started making new ones. My daughter is a big fan, and what put me in mind of buying Biograph on CD was that, when we adopted a kitten back in July, she named it Isis: Biograph has a to- die- for live version of Isis , Dylan’s song about marrying the Egyptian goddess of fertility ( originally released in 1976 on Desire ).
The thing I realise as we listen to the first song — Lay Lady Lay ( studio version, Nashville Skyline , 1969) — is that I have never had even the faintest clue about the principle behind the running order of the compilation.
The second number is Baby, Let Me Follow You Down, a cover of a song by Rick von Schmidt, previously unreleased and recorded live in New York City in 1961. I adore the spoken introduction to this song, in which Dylan says Schmidt taught it to him as they lolled ‘‘ in the green pastures of Harvard University’’. The comment anticipates a long debate in Dylan on the relative merits of book- learning and the school of life.
Next up are two well- known, light- hearted songs of romance, in reverse order of chronology — If Not for You ( 1970) and I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight ( 1967).
As we wind down the Pacific Highway into Pymble and prepare to peel off Australia’s longest stretch of uninterrupted bourgeois living and begin our journey westward, we listen to I’ll Keep It with Mine , recorded in New York in 1965 and previously unreleased, with a solo Dylan accompanying himself on piano. And what an amazing refrain to come out of the mouth of a 23- year- old: Everybody will help you Discover what you set out to find. But if I can save you any time, Come on, give it to me, I’ll keep it with mine. Soon we are driving through Ryde — once John Howard’s heartland — and I notice a car with a woman wearing a burka in the back seat and a scottie dog in front, which for some reason seems an odd combination.
The next three songs on Biograph reveal that Dylan, despite what you may have heard, has very little interest in politics. The Times They are a- Changin’ ( 1964), Blowin’ in the Wind ( 1963), Masters of War ( 1963) and The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll ( 1964), all presented here in their original released version, were once taken as illustrating Dylan’s commitment to a progressive movement. Listen to them these days, carefully, and you will find they are about existential and spiritual realities, not politics. Even the two so- called ‘‘ finger pointin’ ’’ songs, Masters and Hattie Carroll , work by isolating specific individuals and forcing them to account for the suffering of other specific individuals.
Soon we pass the Olympic Village in Homebush and Rookwood Cemetery. This is where I came, only seven months ago, to farewell Paddy McGuinness, the last of the free thinkers and someone who endlessly mocked my fascination with Dylan.
Appropriately enough, we now get Tombstone Blues , in its original 1965 version, and I am able to witness my daughter’s amusement at the classic line: ‘‘ The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken.’’ I am able to point out to her that the line alerts us to a love of punning and word play and wordmagic in Dylan that infects everything from his habit of telling fortune- cookie riddles to his audiences to the linguistic echoes and coincidences that structure the song selections on his satellite radio program, Theme Time Radio Hour .
The next song, Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar , was released as a single in 1981, but I’m fairly sure I never heard it before Biograph came out. As it happens, it contains my favourite Dylan rhyme:
What can I say about Claudette? Ain’t seen her since January, She could be respectably married or running a whorehouse in Buenos Aires. Five songs and a couple of wrong turns later, we arrive at the hockey field in Gymea, only to discover my daughter has forgotten her mouthguard. After watching the game for a few minutes, we turn around and head for home.
The highlights of the middle CD, which covers our journey back north, are far too numerous to cover in detail here. As we slog through Lakemba, in the inner west, I see a man, immensely fat, sitting beside a garage in a flimsy deckchair. He seems to be hectoring a little girl about something. Around this time we get Million Dollar Bash , recorded with the Band in Woodstock in 1967 and eventually released on The Basement Tapes in 1975.
Robbie Robertson, the guitarist in the Band, once described the Woodstock sessions as ‘‘ reefer run amok’’, but I am able to alert my daughter to the element of subconscious babble and doodle that underpins the creations of most significant artists: Well, I looked at my watch I looked at my wrist Punched myself in the face With my fist I took my potatoes Down to be mashed Then I made it over To that million dollar bash. Coincidentally, the second CD is nearing its climax just as we are nearing home. As we pull into our driveway, Dylan announces, ‘‘ Here’s a song about marriage. This is called Isis .’’ The car fills with the noise of wild guitars, drums and, above it all, Scarlet Rivera’s blazing violin.
review@ theaustralian. com. au