At the time Peter Green passed away, my drafts folder contained three reviews on albums featuring Peter Green: John Mayall’s A Hard Road, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac and Then Play On. I had finished the intros (always the hardest part for me), but in each case, I developed writer’s block and found myself unable to move forward.
I finally had to admit to myself that the problem was that I really didn’t give a shit about “the other stuff” on those albums. All I cared about were the Peter Green tracks.
I consider myself a John Mayall fan but I don’t think his work on A Hard Road reflects Mayall at his best; his vocals sound unusually strained and he was still working out the finer points when it came to integrating horns into the mix. As for the two Fleetwood Mac albums, I place the blame solely with Peter Green for insisting on a second guitarist so he wouldn’t have to shoulder the burden of playing frontman. I’d rather listen to a full orchestra of fingernails on chalkboards than listen to Jeremy Spencer with his silly vocalizations and pedestrian slide playing, and though the Danny Kirwan of Then Play On shows promise, some of his contributions reek of early flower child music. On all three albums, Peter Green’s work is several cuts above the contributions of his colleagues.
When I heard the sad news, I realized that in the context of a completed life, commenting on a few flawed albums filled with irrelevant material would represent a great disservice to the memory of this unusually gifted artist, so I started thinking that a playlist of selected tracks might be a better approach. The challenge I faced was pithily expressed by one of my top commentators (Dean) who noted in response to a thread that arose from my review of Future Games, “The Peter Green/Fleetwood Mac (through 1970) discography is a mess.”
I found motivation enough to overcome those obstacles in what seems to be the norm in Peter Green bios, obits and retrospectives: briefly acknowledge his status as a great guitarist then capitalize on the human fascination with tragedy. When I revisited the documentary Man of the World, I found myself frequently shouting at the screen, frustrated with the comparatively little attention devoted to the music and the inordinate amount of time devoted to tabloid-quality amateur psychologizing (Noel Gallager is the next-to-last person I’d hire as a psychoanalyst, right after his brother). I resented the emphasis placed on “Oh, what could have been if he hadn’t fucked it all up by taking too much acid” rather than what the man actually accomplished—which was more than most musicians can only dream of achieving.
We’re talking about artistic achievement here, not commercial success. The most insightful comment Peter Green ever made about his approach to guitar was this: “I like to play slowly and feel every note. It comes from every part of my body.” I’ve always felt that the greatest musical artists are imbued with a reverence for musical sound, likely ignited in early in the learning curve when they plucked a note a certain way, stumbled across an unusual chord, or happened upon a pleasing combination of notes and tempo. The true musical artist is engaged in a constant search for those fleeting epiphanies in sound, beautiful timeless moments of pure wonder—and Peter Green was a true artist.
Some of the choices I made are obvious; others less so; and I’m sure some will complain about certain omissions. Let me clarify things: this is not a “best of” list but a selection of tracks revealing different facets of Peter Green’s artistry.
“The Stumble,” A Hard Road, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers: This high-speed shuffle may seem a contradiction to the “play slowly and feel every note” mantra, but it demonstrates a few important aspects of Peter Green’s style and personality. Remember, Peter Green had the apparent misfortune of succeeding Eric Clapton in the role of Bluesbreakers’ lead guitarist at a time when juvenile delinquents were spraypainting “Clapton Is God” on Arvon Road. I’m not sure who was responsible for selecting this Freddie King number to demonstrate Green’s licks, but since Clapton had already demonstrated his mastery of the fretboard on Freddy’s “Hideaway,” this was a pretty ballsy decision.
If Green felt any pressure about going up against a god he sure doesn’t show it here. For the first couple of go-rounds he sticks pretty close to the patterns in Freddie’s original, but as the song progresses you begin to notice Peter filling his phrases with a few more notes than Freddie. The difference becomes quite noticeable when he travels to the upper reaches of the fretboard (where Freddie only made a few brief appearances). What strikes me most is his tonal clarity at high speed; instead of the usual unintelligible flurry used by turbo-charged guitar heroes to impress the masses, every single note is clean and distinct.
Some guitarists thunder, some rain, but with Peter Green, it’s like listening to a spring shower where you can hear sweet music in each and every drop.
“The Supernatural,” A Hard Road, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers: Having proven he could match Clapton or anyone else in a high-speed competition, Green confirms his “each note” artistic manifesto in “The Supernatural.” It’s important to note that this isn’t simply a set-piece featuring guitar and a modest supporting cast but a layered composition melding multiple octaves within the limits of four-track recording capability, completely designed by Peter Green. Mostly famous for its masterfully controlled feedback followed by thrilling slides down the fretboard, “The Supernatural” was described as “haunting” by Mayall; I would add the word “mesmerizing” to complete the picture.
Though it may not be apparent at first, “The Supernatural” is a blues in D minor—a scale Green would continue to explore over the coming years in what I interpret as a quest for perfection . . . but more about that later.
“The Supernatural” also launched what seems to be an eternal question in the guitar community: “How can I create the Peter Green tone?” Well . . . you could start by picking up a ’59 Les Paul and setting the pickup switch to the middle (dual-pickup) position . . . but I’m afraid you still won’t get there, no matter how many pedals you try and amp settings you tinker with. For one, Peter Green’s ’59 wasn’t just any old Les Paul, but the result of a boo-boo at the Gibson factory.
Jol Dantzig wrote a piece on Premier Guitar describing how he had the opportunity to play Green’s ’59 back in 1984 courtesy of Gary Moore, who bought the guitar from Green—for exactly what Peter had paid for it back in the ’60s (Metallica’s Kirk Hammet bought it a few years back for $2M). Plugging into a ’68 Marshall Plexi, they each played some of Green’s works and managed to reproduce the tone. “Up to this point in time, I’d been the owner of a few original Sunbursts, and our shop had bought and sold plenty more. But none had the eerie tone that Green’s guitar demonstrated in the middle selector position with both pickups on.” Being the curious sort, Dantzig suggested to Moore that they disassemble the guitar to see if Green had messed with the innards. Their initial investigation revealed nothing but factory standard, but Dantzig was one determined investigator:
A pickup creates current through the use of a magnetic field coupled with coils of wire. Both the wiring and the orientation of the magnetic poles determine polarity. If you alter either of these, you change the phase of the pickup relative to another pickup. So, with the wiring intact, I decided to test the magnetic polarity with a compass. Bingo! The magnet was reversed on one pickup. Because the pickup internals looked undisturbed, I concluded that it must have been a mistake at the factory. With Gibson having made over ten thousand electric guitars that year, the odds of the mistake showing up in Green’s guitar seems incredible.
All well and good, but even if you could pry the original from Kirk’s grubby mitts, the truth is Peter Green used multiple pickup settings within the same song and used a Strat as often as a Paul. So, you might be able to get Peter Green’s tone on this song but unable to reproduce it on that song.
The harder truth is stating the obvious: you’re not Peter Green.
“Greeny,” A Hard Road, 2003 Expanded Edition, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers: In the intro I expressed some disappointment with A Hard Road, but a lot of that disappointment vanishes when I listen to the expanded edition. Not only does the grander version give us more Peter Green, but Mayall sounds like he’s having more fun.
In addition to tone, Peter Green is also renowned for his vibrato, an effect most often created by bending the strings. Nearly every lead guitarist on the planet uses some vibrato, most obviously in those moments when they bend strings in an attempt to replicate the cry of pain and anguish in a blues or blues-influenced number. What’s remarkable about his work on “Greeny” is how Green applies vibrato in tiny bursts—like on the second note on the simple four-note core motif, turning a rather pedestrian theme into something that gives me the chills every time I hear it. Though Peter Green could do the guitar hero schtick as well as the best of them, his best work is found in the slower stuff or in songs with a nice, easy tempo like this one.
“I Loved Another Woman (all takes),” Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, 1999 re-release: This expanded edition is quite educational because of its inclusion of multiple takes, giving insight into the nature of Peter Green’s quest for perfection.
- Take 1: Peter’s guitar sounds fabulous, but his voice could have used a bit more of a warm-up. He stops the take a minute into the song, claiming “Sorry, I forgot the words,” but his subsequent feedback to Mick Fleetwood (“you came in a faction late”) tells us that Fleetwood’s tardiness in syncopation is probably what threw him off. This happens a lot in recording—you hear something that sounds a teeny bit off but you’re not entirely sure, so you shoulder on for a while, but that damned little fuck-up is still on your mind and will eventually destroy your concentration.
- Take 2: Peter’s voice is still a bit strained but not enough to spoil the mix; a sharp critic would likely write it off to a stylistic choice—the exhaustion of losing his best gal. McVie and Fleetwood seem to play with a bit more conviction, and Peter’s hard-picked solo is gorgeous and damned sexy. If I had been in the booth, I might have given it a thumbs-up, but the engineer’s “Come and have a listen to it,” communicates some doubt. Try again.
- Take 3: Peter stops after the first phrase and indicates someone (Fleetwood?) “didn’t come in straight away.” Another fractional error.
- Take 4: The engineer cuts it off midway; we have no idea why. He just shouts out “No” and that’s that.
- Take 5: A very promising start with another beautiful solo collapses into ghoulish laughter near the end of Peter’s wordless, falsetto recitation of the melody. Right before the cut I hear a noise like paper shuffling or shoes scuffing, so that may have been a distraction. What’s nice is that Peter ends it with laughter, helping to relieve any pressure in the studio.
- Take 6: Peter says, “Hang on to my tit,” which could mean that whatever caused the distraction in Take 5 might have been attached (no, his voice doesn’t convey the pain of nipple clamps) or in a shirt pocket. Before he begins this take he asks for more fractional improvement from the band; in response to a request from a band member (sounds like Fleetwood), he agrees to play the intro a bit slower. On this take, Peter has more command of his voice; his voice-cracking sounds more intentional as opposed to a problem with the pipes. For reasons unknown, he cuts things off mid-take.
- Final Version: The clarity of instrumental separation clearly shows the effect of mastering; McVie’s bass is more prominent and Peter’s tone is . . . well, it’s frigging beautiful, with just the right amount of reverb to thicken his vibrato. He absolutely nails the vocal, burnishing his credentials as one of the most underrated blues singers of all-time. I also like the way the song fades on his wordless vocalizations (ooh-ooh’s), giving the listener the feeling that the pain of losing his baby is going to stay with him for a long time.
This is the second in a series of three Peter Green D minor blues numbers; the third is the much more famous “Black Magic Woman.” I chose not to include the Fleetwood Mac version largely because I think Santana’s version realizes the song’s full potential by expanding on the song’s innate Latin feel. I’ll explain more when I review Abraxas later this year; for the present, give Peter Green due credit for writing one of the greatest minor blues songs in music history. Mission accomplished.
“Albatross,” English Rose, Fleetwood Mac: Fleetwood Mac’s first #1 hit in the UK provides further proof that though they share a common language (well, sort of), British and American cultural tastes do not sync as often as PBS viewers would have you believe. The song didn’t even chart in the U. S. unless you count #4 on The Billboard Bubbling Under the Hot 100 as “charting.”
The most obvious choice for the source is Santo and Johnny’s 1959 hit “Sleep Walk” from that marvelous era when instrumentals were as likely to chart as vocal performances, with Chuck Berry’s “Deep Feeling” a close second. According to the songwriter, neither answer (if stated in the form of a question) would earn you a cent on Jeopardy. “I heard John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers’ cover of Jimmy Rodgers’ The Last Meal – that’s the blues singer, not the country and western one. I thought I would take it and develop it. I called it that because of that reference to the back of a giant albatross mentioned in the Traffic record ‘Hole in My Shoe.’”
What sounds like a steel pedal guitar is actually Green playing his Strat on his lap. Recent addition Danny Kirwan helped Green complete the composition and supplied the harmonic guitar support that Jeremy Spencer was never able to pull off. You can tell that Green is savoring each note in this exceptionally slow (67 bpm), meditative number, and kudos to Fleetwood for using timpani mallets to create the shimmer.
“Stop Messin’ Around,” Mr. Wonderful, Fleetwood Mac: Mr. Wonderful was one of those experiments that didn’t quite pan out. In an attempt to duplicate their live sound, the album was recorded through a P. A. system. Even producer Mike Vernon, who embraced the idea, had to admit its limitations: ” . . . we never actually really captured the live performance in a studio – with the exception of “Stop Messin’ Around” from the Mr. Wonderful album.”
With support from Christine Perfect (later McVie) on the 88’s and the saxophone duo of Steve Gregory and Johnny Almond, Green finds his guitar and vocal grooves right from the get-go. Like Sinatra and Billie Holiday in many of their vocals, Peter’s guitar phrasing defies the fixed rhythm, falling slightly behind on occasion and anticipating the beat on others. Though he only devotes two verses to vocals, he sounds positively joyful as he calls out his baby’s bullshit. And I love his high-end bends on that last go-round—as sexy as sexy gets.
“Last Night,” Blues Jam at Chess, Fleetwood Mac, Otis Spann, Willie Dixon, Shakey Horton, J. T. Brown, Buddy Guy, Honey Boy Edwards, S. P. Leary: Peter Green was very hard on himself when he didn’t measure up to his own lofty expectations, and in the documentary Man of the World, he waves off his contributions on Blues Jam at Chess (or Fleetwood Mac in Chicago, whatever) as feeling out of his element in the presence of some great black blues musicians. White guilt aside, his discomfort is actually clearer in the rougher vocals than his guitar work. I picked this piece because his vocal is in sync with the song’s essential feeling and his guitar is generally limited to economical support in the form of brief fills and light support for Shakey Horton’s harmonica solo. His solo comes in at around the 3:20 mark, an equally economical performance featuring his scintillating vibrato with just the right amount of notes and not one note more. I imagine a report card somewhere that reads, “Peter plays well with others.”
“Man of the World,” The Best of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Fleetwood Mac: Part of the motivation in bringing Danny Kirwan into the fold was to give Green a true guitar partner; the other part involved Peter Green’s desire to expand the band’s playing field beyond blues-based rock without losing the essence of the blues. “To my mind,” Green told journalist Ian Middleton, “a blues doesn’t have to be a 12-bar progression. It can cover any musical chord sequence. To me, the blues is an emotional thing. If a song has the right emotion then I accept it as a blues.” Music is largely an emotional experience, and Peter Green was a master at expressing and evoking emotion.
With its baroque-style chords having more in common with the songs on Odessey and Oracle, “Man of the World” bears little resemblance to the music on the first two Fleetwood Mac albums. And though the structure is a long way from 12-bar blues, the song expresses sentiments associated with the blues through a combination of lyrics and Peter Green’s vocal abilities.
By this time, Peter Green was becoming deeply disillusioned about the life of a rock star and its essential disconnection from reality. Over a soft background of electric guitar and bass, in musical phrases marked by frequent appearances of minor chords and variants thereof, he sings gently and self-deprecatingly about his “dream life” in the music business . . . then suddenly raises his voice in anguish to deliver a thoroughly shocking sentiment:
Shall I tell you about my life
They say I’m a man of the world
I’ve flown across every tide
And I’ve seen lots of pretty girls
I guess I’ve got everything I need
I wouldn’t ask for more
And there’s no one I’d rather be
But I just wish that I’d never been born
While some tend to interpret that line (and much of the “The Green Manalishi”) through the lens of Green’s future bout with mental illness, I would remind people that such sentiments are part of the stock in trade when it comes to the blues. What’s shocking is hearing them in what sounds like a perfectly lovely ballad. Green softens the blow by attaching his anguish to the absence of true love, but you can’t help but notice the not-so-hidden message that his desperation is aggravated by a feeling that the life he’s living is something of a fraud:
I could tell you about my life
And keep you amused I’m sure
About all the times I’ve cried
And how I don’t want to be sad anymore
And how I wish I was in love
“Man of the World” may or may not sound the alarm in terms of Peter Green’s mental state, but it is certainly a signal that Peter was searching for a way out of a dilemma. It’s also a terribly beautiful piece of music.
“Oh Well, Pts 1 and 2,” Then Play On (Rhino Records Deluxe Edition), Fleetwood Mac: I will be forever astonished that Peter Green considered Part 1 “just the packaging” to get to Part 2. He felt that Part 1 an irrelevant piece based on a “throwaway riff” and should have been surgically removed from future compilation albums. To my ears, both parts are essential, forming a holistic composition concerning the modern manifestation of yin and yang: the aggressive, competitive, extraverted world of the daily grind where image has more value than substance versus the introverted, reflective world where we recover from the general toxicity to ponder our thoughts and emotions.
To my ears, Part 1 is three minutes and twenty-four seconds of some of the fiercest rock ‘n’ roll ever recorded. The joint guitar crescendo is tremendously exciting, forming a sort of musical question that is answered with a stunning moment of near silence broken only by Mick Fleetwood on cowbell before Peter enters with his stop-time, no-more-bullshit, proto-rap lyrics:
I can’t help about the shape I’m in
I can’t sing, I ain’t pretty and my legs are thin
But don’t ask me what I think of you
I might not give the answer that you want me to
The self-deprecation is typical Green; the refusal to continue to play Mr. Nice Guy is the emerging Green, sick and tired of playing the game. In the segment covering “Oh Well” in Man of the World, Peter identifies the guitar as a “Michigan” he bought from some fellow in the North Country (most likely a branded Harmony guitar) and used only on this one song to get a different sound—the rawer, less-embellished sound we’d eventually associate with garage rock. Part 1 ends with a bass pushing the recording limits of the era (Green indicated he played a six-string bass on the piece) fading into the strum of a Spanish guitar that marks the beginning of Part 2.
Mick Fleetwood commented in Man of the World that at this time Peter was beginning to play more of a Brian Wilson role in the band, imagining and creating sound collages combining traditional rock instruments with other sounds and textures. In Part 2 he uses the contrasting timbres of Spanish and electric guitar to build a minor key soundscape contrasting hope and despair, light and dark; later he uses the deep melancholy of a cello (played by himself) in contrast to the wistful yet earthy sound of a wood recorder played by one Sandra Elsdon (a much better textural choice than a metal flute). Employing Jeremy Spencer on piano, he mixes the various elements to form an intermediary crescendo, following the peak with an extended cello-Spanish guitar duet that I’d say was the loveliest musical passage he ever recorded. After another brief moment of silence, the piece turns into sort of a dirge with Fleetwood providing the boom for a few measures before we return to blessed quiet, the recorder now a faint, fading sound in deep background over Peter’s gentle strumming. In a brilliant move, he ends this largely sorrowful segment on a major chord, closing with a bit of hope for our tension-filled world. Of the thousands of what-ifs that haunt the story of Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac, “Oh Well” is the one that brings up my deepest feelings of regret: the combination of power and compositional promise of Fleetwood Mac at that moment of time was beyond exceptional.
“The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown),” Then Play On (Rhino Records Deluxe Edition), Fleetwood Mac: Even more so than “Man of the World,” people classify “The Green Manalishi” as a descent into darkness that clearly reveals the onset of mental disease.
That’s one way to look at it. Peter described it as a song about a bad dream he had. Hey, wait a minute! I’ve had bad dreams! I need meds! Gimme my meds! Lots of meds!
I find this kind of Monday morning psychologizing by non-experts both insulting and unfair to Peter Green’s memory. At this point in his life, he had been moved by the catastrophic famine in Biafra and wanted to do something about it. As his thinking about the situation progressed, he looked at his own life and figured out he was making more money than anyone deserved to make, given the existence of millions of people simply trying to survive another day. Naïve idealist that he was, he tried to get his fellow bandmates to give all their money away and invest it in charitable causes, a proposition that didn’t go over too well with the boys.
Peter Green was always very clear that “The Green Manalishi” was about money and the old adage that money is the root of all evil. Yes, he was taking acid at the time, but given the hundreds of musicians who also partook in the psychedelic experience, his usage was hardly unique and not necessarily problematic in relation to this composition. Yes, the song is on the dark side, but right around this time, Black Sabbath was inventing an entire genre of dark sounds that we now refer to as heavy metal and is considered so socially acceptable that you can win a Grammy for conjuring up such harsh sonic imagery. The opening is somewhat reminiscent of Eric Burdon’s “When I Was Young,” and as far as I know, no one suggested that Eric or any of his bandmates should have been committed to a mental institution. What I hear is a compelling, bitter attack on the power of money and its corrosive power; it sounds more immediate and possibly more ominous because Peter really feels it. The soundscape (enhanced enormously by the line “The night is so black, the darkness cooks”) is appropriately creepy, marked by tightly coordinated guitar duets and sharp cuts, with Peter’s eerie falsetto completing the ghoulish painting of a world gone mad due to unrelenting greed.
“Timeless Time,” The End of the Game, Peter Green: Shortly after Peter Green left Fleetwood Mac, he released his first solo album to universal scorn. The End of the Game isn’t really as bad as the critics make it out to be, biased as they were by their insistence that Peter should stick close to the blues-rock formula that made Fleetwood Mac the darlings of the late ’60s.
There are problems with the record, most involving the method of construction: Peter engaged his band of brothers in a series of jams, then cut and spliced what he thought were the best parts. It’s obvious that his perfectionist streak had dimmed somewhat, particularly in relation to Alex Dmochowski’s bass, which frequently overpowers the mix. Still, there are some good musical ideas on the album, especially those that lean towards modern jazz.
I chose “Timeless Time” for this essay because of something I learned watching Man of the World. Peter’s introduction to the guitar came via his brother Lenny, who had purchased a guitar only to find out he was tone-deaf. He gave it to his ten-year-old kid brother Peter and showed him three chords: E, A and B7, the classic blues combination. According to Lenny, “after about six to eight months, Peter was doing really well.”
When I listen to “Timeless Time,” where Peter’s guitar is extraordinarily quiet and limited to a single channel, it calls up images of a kid in a room with the door closed, cradling his guitar, playing wherever his fingers lead him, repeating a few riffs that charmed him, experiencing the wonder of musical expression by playing slowly and feeling every note.
Regular readers may remember that at this time last year both Dad and I had taken a rain check on Major League Baseball because it was depressing to watch anything of American origin with the country going down the fascist-racist path.
The George Floyd protests gave my dear father hope that the American people had finally come to their senses and that real change was in the air. Concurrently with those protests, polls also showed Joe Biden with a healthy lead over Voldemort and that the Democrats had a real shot at taking the Senate and booting Voldemort’s partner-in-crime-and-corruption, Mitch McConnell, out of the all-powerful majority leader role. And wild-eyed optimist that he is, Dad saw the visible support of professional athletes on behalf of the BLM protests as another sign that the United States had finally turned things around . . . and a great excuse for tuning in truncated MLB season and the NBA playoffs.
Note that his daughter does not share his optimism. Biden could be leading by 30 points and it wouldn’t matter. The COVID-19 numbers combined with Voldemort’s approval rating tell me that 40 percent of Americans think he’s doing a helluva job, and that’s more than enough cover for either another stolen election or a Reichstag fire coupled with a state-of-emergency suspension of all civil rights. Since I don’t think the fat fuck can physically survive for long, I fully expect Ivanka to be running the country sometime in 2021.
Still pretty sour on my former homeland (though I go through spurts when I can’t help but tune into the horror show called “news”), I initially refused my father’s invitations to come over and watch some baseball after I returned from vacation. But dad has a way of wearing me down and I finally agreed to watch the Giants-Dodgers matchup scheduled for August 26 (which we would watch via DVR on the 27th). Giants-Dodgers games were always the most intense, (even when the Giants sucked, as they do now), so I thought it might be fun to indulge in nostalgia.
“Sorry, Sunshine—game canceled.”
“What? In August? In California? There can’t be any wildfires that close to the Bay! Coronavirus?”
“No—I guess you haven’t heard the latest. The cops shot another black man in the back.”
“Both teams decided not to play in protest of the shooting.”
For a moment I was stunned that the Giants and Dodgers could be on the same side under any circumstances, but after my brain had time to process the news, I said, “That is fucking awesome!”
“It’s happening, sunshine. People aren’t putting up with this shit anymore. Protesting works.”
“Spoken like a true son of the 60s. But whether it works or not, I’m glad they did what they did. Maybe it will sink in somewhere down the line, but . . .”
“Hey. How’s that review of Freewheelin‘ you promised me? Maybe that will rescue you from your cynicism.”
“Haven’t started it yet. And by the way, cynicism is just a manifestation of frustrated idealism. I long for a better world but I don’t think most people give a shit—hence, cynicism.”
“Well, let’s see how you feel after Freewheelin’. May young Bob heal your soul.”
Bob Dylan’s first album sold so poorly that there was talk at Columbia about dropping him. Fortunately for posterity, John Hammond’s voice still carried a lot of weight, and with additional support from Johnny Cash, he managed to convince the nay-sayers that Dylan deserved another shot.
While Dylan’s début featured only two original compositions (both revealing the influence of Woody Guthrie), in the months that followed he found his muse and his voice. The muse in question was a political activist for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) by the name of Suze Rotolo; you can see her “smile that could light up a street full of people” (according to Dylan) on the album cover. There is no question that his relationship with Suze motivated Dylan to shift his songwriting attention to more topical subjects involving culture and politics, but Dylan’s embrace of Woody Guthrie had already predisposed him to follow that path.
What’s important is what he admired about Guthrie: “The songs themselves had the infinite sweep of humanity in them.” Some protest songs are satirical, others paint the ugly truth with a grim brush, but some of the greatest protest songs express deep empathy from those suffering from injustice. Sometimes that empathy is captured in the lyrics (Phil Ochs’ “There But for Fortune”); sometimes it’s captured in the singer’s interpretation (Frank Sinatra’s performance of “Ol’ Man River” at Carnegie Hall). The fact that Dylan identified with Guthrie’s empathy meant he was capable of empathy himself . . . he just needed to let it come to the surface in his own compositions.
Dylan covers all the bases on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan: the satiric, the bleak, the empathetic, the absurd and the self-pitying. This is the folk version of Bob Dylan; most of the songs are just Dylan with his guitar and harmonica. After listening to the layered and heavily processed recordings of the Beach Boys and immersing myself in the complex tunings and noise rock of Sonic Youth (review coming soon), I have to say that the sheer simplicity of the album was refreshing, reminding me that sometimes a simple arrangement of voice and guitar can have more power than a symphony orchestra or the loudest amp stacks.
“Blowin’ in the Wind”: What can be said about a song that is familiar all over the world, a song that people know so well that they’ve forgotten its meaning and sing it in rote like they do “The Star-Spangled Banner?” Quite a lot, actually. One sure-fire test of determining whether or not a creative effort qualifies as art is timelessness, and “Blowin in the Wind” is unfortunately timeless . . . depending on your sense of morality.
Dylan’s version is as simple as simple gets: a three-chord guitar song in I-IV-V mode. It might have been one of the first songs you learned when you were trying to get your head and fingers around the guitar. The popular version by Peter, Paul & Mary is more elaborate, with the choral melody established in the guitar intro and the emphatic shift to the V chord in the verse lines where Dylan returns to the root. PP&M also added a complementary minor chord that provides a pointed note of sadness. Placing them both in the same key for comparison, Dylan’s version is G-C-D and PP&M’s G-C-D7-Em. Easy peasy.
Dylan sings in a voice characterized by weariness and sadness, generally allowing the words to speak for themselves. PP&M made more extensive use of different dynamics (soft-LOUD) and Mary Travers’ heartfelt passion comes through loud and clear above the harmonies. Both versions work, confirming the truth that great songs allow for multiple interpretations. I think the difference between the two is that Mary Travers’ approach comes across as advocacy, a call to action, whereas Bob Dylan’s take is as an expression of empathy, a call to reflect on the suffering of the disadvantaged. The line “How many years can some people exist/Before they’re allowed to be free?” is clearly related to the Civil Rights Movement, and the weariness in Bob’s voice reflects the weariness of African-Americans who at that time had waited a century to achieve true emancipation. What’s truly remarkable is that this is Bob Dylan at twenty-one, fresh from the prairie, having spent most of his life in an area of the country where the population is as white as the winter snow, writing a song that captured “the infinite sweep of humanity.”
I think “Blowin’ in the Wind” is a beautiful and moving song . . . and I find it intensely frustrating. I feel the same way about “We Shall Overcome”— I resist the “someday” in that song as much as I resist “the answer, my friends, is blowin’ in the wind.” I want the answers to the rhetorical questions posed in the song to be expressed with crystal clarity. End war. Eliminate injustice. Give everyone the freedom to live their lives to their fullest potential. Transform the waste of hatred and fear into love and respect. Stop fucking around and do it now.
When “Blowin’ in the Wind” was published in the now-defunct folk journal Sing Out!, Dylan added some commentary about the meaning of the song. One statement stood out for me: “I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it’s wrong.” The corresponding line in the song is “How many times can a man turn his head/And pretend that he just doesn’t see?”
I thought about that comment a lot and came to the conclusion that it no longer applies to the United States. The people in the Trump administration don’t think separating children from their parents and putting them in cages is wrong: it is what it is. They don’t think using the power of their offices to enrich themselves is wrong: it is what it is. They don’t think . . . well, let’s skip down to the last verse:
How many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
How many deaths will it take ’til he knows
That too many people have died?
Narcissistic sociopaths can’t feel empathy, so the first question is moot. As for the second question, apparently 183,000 dead Americans (as of today) isn’t enough for Trump and the GOP. It is what it is.
The timelessness of “Blowin’ in the Wind” is dependent on listeners having a certain amount of moral fiber. The song fails the timelessness test in a post-morality, post-truth universe.
“Girl from the North Country”: When young Bob visited the UK, he hooked up with legendary folk artist Martin Carthy and learned a few tunes, including the song we know as “Scarborough Fair.” Bob borrowed some bits (plagiarism doesn’t apply to songs in the public domain) to tell a tale of love long past. As is usually the case with the gossip-obsessed music press, there was a lot of speculation about which of three former Dylan lovers was the girl in the song, to which I respond, “WHO GIVES A SHIT?”
The song is bookended by the “she once was a true love of mine” verses we all know, with the more interesting differentiation contained in the three middle stanzas. Bob is obviously describing a scene that took place in his northern Minnesota days (I’ve never heard of New York City referred to as “the north country”) and he paints a vivid picture of a memory that he carried with him to Greenwich Village:
If you go when the snowflakes storm
When the rivers freeze and summer ends
Please see if she has a coat so warm
To keep her from the howlin’ winds
Please see if her hair hangs long,
If it rolls and flows all down her breast.
Please see for me if her hair’s hangin’ long,
That’s the way I remember her best.
Men—always looking at the tits. I’m glad he cut off the verse before launching into a paean about her Minnesota-winter rock-hard nipples.
Seriously, this is a lovely little song and Bob sings it with tender feeling.
“Masters of War”: After that charming little interlude it’s back to the heavy stuff, and Dylan pulls no punches in this all-out attack on the merchants of death who profit from mass misery. Like “Girl from the North Country,” the tune is from an English folk song (“Nottamun Town”). I suppose you could say the two songs share similar themes, as both describe manifestations of insanity (though “Nottamun Town” is far more absurdist and has nothing to do with war). While I completely agree with Dylan’s attack on immoral beings who profit from meaningless death, I think it was a mistake to shape the song as a direct challenge, because a.) they’re never going to listen, b.) they don’t give a shit about saving their souls, only their profits and c.) it sounds more like an angry rant of one individual instead of a clarion call to join with the singer to end the travesty of profitable war. The last verse is really bitter (much like a few Woody Guthrie songs directed at the fascists):
And I hope that you die
And your death will come soon
I’ll follow your casket
On a pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand over your grave
‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead
Oh, Bobby, try another tack. He’ll just be replaced by another greedy, ghoulish asshole.
“Down the Highway”: This is a little highway-and-suitcase-in-my-hand 12-bar blues featuring some energetic strumming as Dylan longs for Suze Rotolo, who had left New York for a while to study in Italy. The last lines “From the Golden Gate Bridge/All the way to the Statue of Liberty” are pure Guthrie. The song isn’t particularly memorable, but don’t worry—there’s a better song about his shaky relationship with Suze a few tracks down the highway.
“Bob Dylan’s Blues”: This not-much-of-song has some value as background material concerning Dylan’s self-image and fetishes (not the fun, naughty kind but standard neurotic obsessions). He depicts himself in boots, ready for the day a few years down the road when his boot heels will feel like wanderin’. The fetish is one he shares with Woody Guthrie: the outlaw armed with a six-shooter.
Well, lookit here buddy
You want to be like me?
Pull out your six-shooter
And rob every bank you can see
Tell the judge I said it was all right
Guthrie’s catalog is peppered with songs about greedy, cold-hearted banks (villains) and bank robbers (heroes). In “Pretty Boy Floyd,” he defended the murderer as a friend to the poor, crediting Floyd with paying off the mortgages of struggling farmers and buying Christmas dinners for families on relief. Dylan also expressed his admiration for sociopaths like Floyd, Billy the Kid, and of course, John Wesley Hardin (no g)—the mythical rob-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the poor crowd.
I will never understand the American fetish with guns, nor the romance attached to the outlaw.
“A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”: Dylan adopted the question/answer format of “Lord Randall” (Roud 10, Child 12), an old border song dramatizing a conversation between mother and son where sonny boy eventually discloses he is about to croak off because his (lover, stepmother, or other mom-competitor) poisoned his fish soup.
Dylan’s tale is equally dark but far richer than an already-solved murder mystery. He described the sentiments that drove him to compose “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” thusly: “After a while you become aware of nothing but a culture of feeling, of black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course. It’s all one long funeral song.”
Try to tell me Bob Dylan’s work isn’t relevant today.
The song is NOT about the Cuban Missile Crisis (Dylan wrote it a month before that seminal event). Dylan explained it on the album liner notes: “‘Hard Rain’ is a desperate kind of song. Every line in it is actually the start of a whole song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one.”
Hell, he could have thrown the Cuban Missile Crisis in there had he known about it, as the song is about the perpetual low-grade fever the human race has suffered from since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Living on the edge of imminent doom has shaped human consciousness for decades; the world continues to move from crisis to crisis, from one unsolvable problem to another, and we’re always waiting for the next hammer to drop. We’re addicted to bad news, which is why the media focuses on all the awful stuff rather than any of the good stuff. Addicts need their daily fix; encouraging addiction is profitable. The hard rain is not fallout rain, but the sense that “something big is coming”—symbolic of the dread we live with every day.
Bob Dylan understood that, and in an interview with Studs Terkel way back in 1963—long before the advent of news-as-entertainment and the blurring of fact and opinion—he commented, “In the last verse, when I say, ‘the pellets of poison are flooding the waters,’ that means all the lies that people get told on their radios and in their newspapers.”
Fox News, anyone? Again, try to tell me Bob Dylan’s work isn’t relevant today.
The poem is structured around verses that begin with five different questions:
- Where have you been?
- What did you see?
- What did you hear?
- Who did you meet?
- What’ll you do now?
The “Where Have You Been” question sets the scene by taking us on a tour through a world suffering from environmental damage and non-stop war: “I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests/I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans/I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard.” When mother asks the young man what he saw, the images come to life in all their ugliness—lynching, people working their fingers down to the bone, the lack of a safety net, the inability to communicate, the not-so-harmless toys that program children to believe that violence is not a bad thing:
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
“What did you hear?” elicits a similar list of horrors, this time focused on human callousness:
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
“Who did you meet?” results in more surreal responses. “I met a young woman whose body was burning” might refer to witchcraft and J. Edgar’s communist witch hunts. “I met a young girl and she gave me a rainbow” is easily the most hopeful line in the song. The two lines that grab me synthesize the truth of opposites, existential pain and the general sense of feeling wounded by life itself:
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded in hatred
That last question was posed in similar fashion by Joe Strummer in “Clampdown”—“What are we gonna do now?” Dylan ends the song with a deeply-felt personal commitment to shine a bright light on the ugliness and devote his efforts to truth-telling, the only way out of the mess we created for ourselves:
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest dark forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well-hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where the souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
You know, when I started this blog I really didn’t think all that much of Bob Dylan. I hereby offer the universe my heartfelt apology (at least up to but not including Blonde on Blonde).
“Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right”: The only self-help book I ever read that was worth a damn is Messages: The Communication Skills Book by McKay, Davis and Fanning (not a law firm). In the chapter covering Expression, they talk about a common phenomenon called “contaminated messages.”
Contamination takes place when your messages are mixed or mislabeled . . . Contaminated messages are at best confusing and at worst deeply alienating . . . Contaminated messages differ from partial messages in that the problem is not merely one of omission. You haven’t left the anger, the conclusion or the need out of it. It’s there all right, but in a disguised and covert form . . . The easiest way to contaminate your messages is to make the content simple and straightforward, but say it in a tone of voice that betrays your feelings.
—McKay, Davis and Fanning, Messages: The Communication Skills Book, 1995, Oakland CA
“Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” is one big fat contaminated message. We’re talking criminal-level contamination here.
Despite the high toxicity levels, Dylan had a point when he wrote in the liner notes, “It isn’t a love song. It’s a statement that maybe you can say to make yourself feel better. It’s as if you were talking to yourself.” Dylan captured all the things we’d like to say after an episode of betrayal or abandonment. Sometimes we get over the hurt and approach the conversation in a more civilized manner; sometimes we just let it fucking rip. The closing lines are pure contaminated genius:
I ain’t saying you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right
The song’s melody is borrowed from a song in the public domain, “Who’s Gonna Buy Your Chickens When I’m Gone?” Dylan learned that tune from a guy named Paul Clayton who wrote an updated version called “Whose Gonna Buy You Ribbons (When I’m Gone?”). Neither comes close to Dylan’s masterpiece of self-pitying sarcasm nor expresses the weird, fleeting delight when we tell someone to go fuck themselves.
“Bob Dylan’s Dream”: Here Dylan borrows the melody and a couple of lines from yet another old folk ballad of uncertain origin (Ireland, Scotland or Canada, take your pick), “Lady Franklin’s Lament.” Lady Franklin lost her husband to that fruitless search for the Northwest Passage; Dylan uses the song to bemoan the loss of dear friends from his youth, “And each one I’ve never seen again.” Of all the songs written about the lost years of adolescence, this is one of the more touching and least sentimental:
With half-damp eyes I stared to the room
Where my friends and I’d spent many an afternoon
Where we together weathered many a storm
Laughin’ and singin’ till the early hours of the morn
By the old wooden stove where our hats was hung
Our words was told, our songs was sung
Where we longed for nothin’ and were satisfied
Jokin’ and talkin’ about the world outside
With hungry hearts through the heat and cold
We never much thought we could get very old
We thought we could sit forever in fun
But our chances really was a million to one
BTW, my favorite lost youth song comes from another Guthrie disciple: “912 Greens” by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. I really need to do Young Brigham.
“Oxford Town”: I haven’t written about this, but over the last few years I’ve read dozens of books on American history, largely to answer the nagging question, “What the fuck happened to my homeland?” The unfortunate answer turned out to be “Nothing.” The USA has been a white supremacist state since its founding and has made astonishingly little progress over a period of two centuries.
Dylan actually wrote the song in response to an invitation by the leftist-labor folk music mag Broadside encouraging songwriters to submit works related to the Ole Miss riots that accompanied the efforts to enroll James Meredith at the University of Mississippi. Phil Ochs also submitted his take, “The Ballad of Oxford.”
Fortunately for Bob Dylan, the invitation did not involve any kind of contest. Phil’s you-are-there narrative and no-holds-barred language would have crushed “Oxford Town.”
“Talkin’ World War III Blues”: Dylan’s maiden attempt at a Woody Guthrie-style “talkin’ song” was allegedly created spontaneously in the studio at the end of Freewheelin’ sessions. I have no reason to doubt that—the story lacks both punch and punch lines. The best verse involves sex, for not even a nuclear holocaust can still the flow of testosterone:
Well, I spied me a girl and before she could leave
“Let’s go and play Adam and Eve”
I took her by the hand and my heart it was thumpin’
When she said, “Hey man, you crazy or sumthin’
You see what happened last time they started”
“Corrina, Corrina”: This old blues-folk number has appeared in various permutations throughout the years; Dylan brought it into the Folk Revival by borrowing the melody and a line or two from Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway.” A full band appears in this piece, suitably muffled in keeping with the folk norms Dylan would smash at Newport a few years into the future.
I’ll take Dylan’s gentle, loping version over the Ray Peterson-Phil Spector melodrama any time.
“Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance”: Dylan gets partial songwriting credit for his modification of this Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas number that dates back to the late 1920s. Thomas is also responsible for Canned Heat’s “Goin’ Up the Country,” The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Fishin’ Blues” and helping Taj Mahal fill out his sets. Pretty good for a guy who only spent three years in the music business. All I can say about Dylan’s performance in this song is that he sounds unusually exuberant and exuberance really doesn’t work for Bob Dylan.
“I Shall Be Free”: Freewheelin’ ends with yet another adaptation, this one following a path from Leadbelly to Woody Guthrie. It’s essentially another talkin’ song that repeats some of the earthier testosterone-driven themes covered in “Bob Dylan’s Dream.” This time he chases a woman up a hill in the middle of an air-raid and has an interesting conversation with JFK:
Well, my telephone rang it would not stop
It’s President Kennedy callin’ me up
He said, My friend, Bob, what do we need to make the country grow?
I said my friend, John, Brigitte Bardot
I compliment both men on their excellent taste in broads, but alas, JFK only bonked one of the three (Ms. Ekberg). Some critics hated the song for being too lightweight, but I found the song a bit more humorous than “Talkin’ World War III Blues.”
Revisiting my father’s wish, Freewheelin’ didn’t exactly heal my cynical soul, but it’s always uplifting to find someone out there who validates one’s sense of right and wrong. I still think America is hell-bent on self-destruction, and recent developments confirm that belief.
I’ve always thought that American socialists were some of the dumbest people in the world, and now they’re proving it by inciting violence and destroying property, playing right into Voldemort’s evil designs. White supremacist brownshirts are asserting themselves, strengthened by presidential-level support. The GOP has spent decades perfecting the art of using fear to win elections—and if fear doesn’t entirely do the trick, they have the power to suppress voting and no compunction whatsoever when it comes to cheating.
I don’t have sufficient readership to have an impact on the outcome of the election, but if any of you reading this could remind the lame-brained violent lefties you happen to run into that violence is always counter-productive, I’d appreciate it. To help you soothe any feelings you may hurt in the process, give them this bonus gift of a mantra they can use to help them behave like rational human beings:
“And I’ll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it”