Monday, December 10, 2007

Bob Dylan's Huck

“Huck’s Tune” is yet another great Bob Dylan song that has not been released on any of his own albums, nor anywhere the average person would ordinarily look for it. Rather, it’s on the soundtrack to Lucky You, a rather forgettable minor film (a knock off of The Cincinnati Kid, it would seem) by a good director, Curtis Hanson, who is responsible for L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys amongst others.

This, however perverse it seems, is Dylan’s wont. Take “I’ll Keep it With Mine,” “George Jackson,” “Things Have Changed,” “Blind Willie McTell,” “Abandoned Love,” and “Dignity,” all of which are among Dylan’s best songs, and none of which he cared to release on a regular album. Instead, they tend to show up years after the fact on some compilation or other. And don’t even get me started about the great songs which he couldn’t be bothered with recording through to the end, such as “You Need a New Lover Now” or finishing writing, such as “To Fall in Love With You.” For me, these latter works are like those unfinished Michelangelo statues (and anyone who thinks that’s an extravagant comparison is just a snob), which gain a kind of fascination because one compulsively finishes them in one’s imagination. Or at least I do. But as for the finished works that are allowed to sit in obscurity? I don’t know: maybe that’s Dylan’s version of the fresco painted by a great master on the wall of a private home; or maybe he simply doesn’t give a damn. Who knows? Probably not even Dylan himself. In any case, I suppose when you’ve got talent at the highest level, there’s a kind of honour in squandering it rather than over-valuing it and hoarding it in a miserly fashion, which bespeaks an unseemly sort of vanity.

Of course, this is not to argue that Dylan’s career has consisted purely of masterpieces, the acknowledged and the unacknowledged. There is certainly chaff amongst the wheat (e.g., most of Self Portrait to begin with). My point, rather, is that although, from a bourgeois standpoint, there have been many times when watching Dylan’s management of his own career has been as frightening as watching a drunk behind the wheel of a transport truck, from a strictly artistic point of view, he has simply done what he has felt like doing without respect to profit or prudence, and whether motivated by inspiration or irritation (e.g., again, Self Portrait, which, as the title implies, was simply his expanded truculent response to those he had complained of in “Maggie’s Farm”: “Well, I try my best / To be just like I am / But everybody wants you /To be just like them. / They say: ‘Sing while you slave!’ and I just get bored. / I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.”) So, chaff there may be, but, if “the word of God is,” as Northrop Frye suggested, “the aggregate of inspired words of art,” then the uninspired works don’t necessarily come from somewhere else, because, as Tom Waits said, “There ain’t no Devil; that’s just God when he’s drunk.”

At any rate, here is an amateur video of "Huck's Tune" which someone has posted on YouTube. The video is sweet, I suppose, although it makes me sigh a little because of its literal mindedness; but regardless, it's a handy way of hearing the song. I've transcribed the lyrics immediately below the video, and you may want to read those as you listen instead of watching the video. (By the way, those looking for seasonal content in this posting may find it in the first line of the fifth verse.)

Huck’s Tune
by Bob Dylan

Well I wandered alone through a desert of stone
And I dreamt of my future wife
My sword's in my hand and I'm next in command
In this vision of death called life
My plate and my cup are right straight up
I took a rose from the hand of a child
When I kiss your lips, the honey drips
I'm gonna have to put you down for a while

Every day we meet on any old street
And you're in your girlish prime
The short and the tall are coming to the ball
I go there all of the time
Behind every tree there's something to see
The river is wider than a mile
I tried you twice; you can't be nice
I'm gonna have to put you down for a while

Here come the nurse with money in her purse
Here come the ladies in red
You push it all in and you've no chance to win
You play 'em on down to the end
I'm laying in the sand getting a sunshine tan
Moving along riding in style
From my toes to my head you knock me dead
I'm gonna have to put you down for a while

I count the years and I shed no tears
I'm blinded to what might have been
Nature's voice makes my heart rejoice
Play me the wild song of the wind
I found hopeless love in the room above
When the sun and the weather were mild
You're as fine as wine, I ain't handing you no line
I'm gonna have to put you down for a while

All the merry little elves can go hang themselves
My faith is as cold as can be
I'm stacked high to the roof and I'm not without proof
If you don't believe me, come see
You think I'm blue? I think so too
In my words you'll find no guile
The game's gotten old
The deck's gone cold
And I'm gonna have to put you down for a while
The game's gotten old
The deck's gone cold
I'm gonna have to put you down for a while

Now “Huck’s Tune” is interesting to me beyond its inherent merits because of the way in which it seems to be set in a landscape of immanent apocalypse (and I do mean immanent: inherent in and subjective to the mind, and not imminent: likely to happen any moment) that is similar to the overtones of his last record, Modern Times. In Chronicles, Dylan writes about how, in the first years of his career, he regularly read Civil War-era newspapers, not for specific stories, but to glean a sense of the era for its ethical and mythological dimensions. In Modern Times, Dylan seems to be doing something similar, although his focus is on a different era. To a degree, it is related to what Ry Cooder has done in his latest, My Name is Buddy: Cooder went back for inspiration to the 1930s, when Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Leadbelly and others were offering a sort of existential portrait of the individual worker cut loose from any firm social structure. Like Cooder, Dylan uses this frame of reference as an ominous precursor to the social conditions of the United States today, when the reckless capitalism of the right wing has systematically eroded any sense of common weal and therefore any confidence in a firm social morality. But Dylan has pushed the idea much further than this historical context, in that while he embraces various forms of American music from that time (including not only folk ballads and blues, but even crooner tunes and jaunty fox-trots), he also intimates that the songs are set not in the past or present or even in the future, but in a sort of parallel world that resembles the apparently post-apocalyptic landscape of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. And he is interested in the idea of being on a journey without apparent destination, and without the benefit of moral compass ⎯ listen carefully to “Ain’t Talkin’,” the closing song on Modern Times, in which, as the song progresses, the title seems more and more related to the refusal of speech (“ask me not what I know”) from King Lear. There seems little question that he is after something of a universal sort. To compare it to another play, it is as if Beckett’s tramps were forced, not to sit in one place to wait for Godot, but having given up on his arrival, to make their way, perpetually, and without pause, along the road in search of something unknown.

Bob Dylan considers what should be done when the wheels come off of Western civilization

“Huck’s Tune” seems to partake of this same context. Now, it may have been written expressly for the movie Lucky You, although it seems equally likely that Curtis Hanson was offered the unreleased song and then decided to name the character, a gambler, accordingly. But in either case, I think that Dylan surely (and Hanson probably) also had in mind Mark Twain’s boy hero, Huckleberry Finn, whose journey into moral maturity has come, through repeated allusion, to represent the American soul. Of course, that idea of Huck as the American soul comes with a sort of daunting baggage when one considers the end of the book, where the arrival of Tom Sawyer takes what had become an increasingly profound and earnest quest for a new moral code, and allows it to drift back into a puerile denouement that suggests a failed struggle (Twain’s failed struggle, if you ask me) to wrest spiritual destiny out of the hands of selfishness and ignorance. For the Huck of Dylan’s song, the quest seems to be for a redemptive love, but it’s confused by the gambling addiction. The woman in question seems as though she may be a bad gamble; but the irony is that the alternative is gambling for an empty reward (more money, which will only lead to more gambling). In the contemporary world, Dylan apparently sees a lot of confused and corrupted Parisfals on quests with no clear directions. As always, Dylan doesn’t pretend to offer any answers; he’s just thinking out loud about the dilemma.

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