I started thinking about this because of “Up to Me”, which I know from the box set Biograph (1985), but was apparently meant for Blood on the Tracks (1975). It’s not even like my fifth favorite Bob Dylan song, but it has been in heavy rotation for a few years now, leaving me wondering:
A) about my relationships with artists that I’ve “known” for a long time and how those relationships change as I change, and
It’s just a little Greatest Hits book, published in 1988 by Contemporary Books, Inc. I was most struck by “Song from Maud” by Tennyson and the Edna St. Vincent Millay poems. It has Shakespeare, Matthew Arnold, a bunch of Ballads by unknown singers, Christina Rossetti, and the Song of Solomon. It contains a lot of poems you know, even if you think you don’t know poems, and with a few misses, I’d say it basically lives up to its promise regarding the “classic” quality of the love poems. And I was reading it just as I was reading the lyrics to all the songs on Born to Run. Reading for feelings, not comprehension; feelings both ancient and presently felt. Come into the garden, Maud. We're out here casing the Promised Land. I filled notebook after notebook with snippets of songs and poems; lines I liked, lines that caught me, lines I noticed.
Obviously, there is empowerment in this kind of adolescent noticing. I picked the music (and books and movies, for that matter) I listened to, and I liked it all for reasons specific to me, thus continuing the development of a biological “self”, an ego; one that we all know exists but can be hard to scientifically quantify for outside viewers. Why do you like the stuff you like, and what does it mean about you?
Song lyrics have been poems for me ever since. I like a poem in the way I like a song, and I like a song in the way I like a poem. I explain them to myself in the same way. So. Again. “Up to Me” by Bob Dylan.
- It’s rueful, cynical, hopeful, funny, boastful, and epically sad.
- I probably won’t need to repeat the above adjectives for the remainder of this project. They are the mathematical givens in my art equation.
- The plot (?) still remains unclear to me, heavy rotation aside. There’s a Three Musketeers meets the Old West meets a Navy ship meets a working at the post office vibe going on. Is he referencing a “Wanted” poster that he hauled down off the wall? And who is Estelle? I get that she’s the one I’ve been wondering about but there’s really nothing much to tell. But what does she have to do with the old rounder in the iron mask? And for god’s sake, what is a rounder, and why is he wearing an iron mask?
- The path he takes to get to whatever it is that is up to him is both musically and lyrically predictable, which is comforting. You know what’s coming every time he starts a verse.
- Sometimes, something is up to him because he’s the only one who can do it. Sometimes, he’s mad that someone has left something up to him (Why does it have to be up to me? Why can’t it be up to someone else?). Sometimes, whatever has been left up to him is one of the horrible facts of grown-up life- not everything works, not all problems get solved, not all loves end or begin. Sometimes, he seems like he’s doing us a favor; other times, he doesn’t care. Somebody’s got to cry some tears, I guess it must be up to me.
- My friend Eric, an even bigger Dylan fan with equally migratory favorites, noted that it’s kind of a poor man’s “Tangled Up in Blue” i.e. why listen to it when you can listen to TUIB, the two songs obviously made around the same time. I tend to agree; if you’re looking for beautiful mid-tempo Bob Dylan songs that are slightly too long, you should probably go with TUIB. Still, try letting “Up to Me” come up on shuffle for years without forming a personal connection to it.
- The down-homey reflexive Dylan-y phrasing of everything:
I've only got me one good shirt left and it smells of stale perfume.
You looked a little burned out, my friend, I thought it might be up to me.
And the harmonica around my neck, I blew it for 'ya free. No one else could play that tune. You knew it was up to me.
He's right. The harmonica that follows is pretty much perfect. A few more lyrics for your consideration to follow this week. And for the record, (if you're a keeper of lists of your own, you'll understand the compulsion to get this on the record), my first favorite Bob Dylan song is the Them cover of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” followed very closely by this one.