If not for you, my ride’d pall

IMRE SALUSINSZKY

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View -

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

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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