Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Rolling stones and tires and such

I like Kings of Leon because (and this may be the best compliment anyone is ever likely to receive from me) they remind me of Bob Dylan. The two are nothing alike really; I suppose you could draw allusions between both Kings of Leons and Dylan’s “unusual” vocals and tendency towards circular guitar riffs, but what I mean is that Kings of Leon make me feel the way Bob Dylan makes me feel: like I must go out and do something immediately, like the world is out there waiting for me.

Matthew Followill is some magical combination of George Harrison and John Fogerty: like Harrison, everything he does is simple and clear and understated, but still he maintains Fogerty’s dirty repetition and energetic style. The result is an absolutely solid foundation for Caleb’s voice; a dry, cracked metallic miracle of a voice that should strike terror into the heart of every daughter’s mother.

Because of the Times starts off with the eight-minute long song “Knocked Up”, which still feels too short sometimes; it feels like tires rolling, like a jaunt on the freeway, and half the time the drive is so much fun you’re sorry to get where you’re going. The harmonics just propel you forward into the rest of the album, and it only gets better. They sound like Dobermans behind a junkyard fence, gagging at the ends of their chains to get at you; they sound like that rhythmic thump that occurs at high speeds when you’ve only got one window open; they sound like three o’clock in the morning coming down and the crash of beer bottles in the street.

Lyrically, they’re not Dylan; and holding them anywhere close makes them look like a three-legged dog trying to race Jesse Owens, but then everybody looks like that next to Dylan. But they get the message across: they’re going somewhere better than here, and you should go, too. “We ain’t even been to the ocean, we’ve been running barefoot through streams,” they announce at the end of the song “Ragoo,” only to deliver you straight into “Fans,” which I think is the peak of the album, the unloading of the cooler at the oceanfront, with a feedback wave crashing into the rhythm guitar part. “And those rainy days, they ain’t so bad when you’re the king-the king they want to see,” or, alternatively, “the king they want to be.” This song is the rejoicing at arrival and the stretching of numb limbs.

It’s their recurring theme of going somewhere that reminds me of Dylan; particularly I am talking about Dylan's songs “It's All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” which I always play back-to-back because I think they belong together.

There are entire books written about the song “Like a Rolling Stone,” and at one point the damn thing had over sixty verses, but for recording purposes it was condensed into four, with a play time of six minutes and thirteen seconds. It took me a long time to get the hang of “Like a Rolling Stone.” At first I thought it was about somebody in particular, a historical piece, but that didn't ever seem quite right, because the language was too metaphorical, and Dylan's historical pieces about Hattie Carroll and Medgar Evars' murderer and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter are all very specific. Then I began to think it was about Bob Dylan himself, which seemed a lot better, until I correctly heard the lyric, “You've gone to the finest school, all right, Miss Lonely, but you know you only used to get juiced in it.” Then I realized he was talking about me. Or everybody, really, but the subject is “you,” the listener, and she is female.

Another interesting thing about that song is that musically it is a very energetic song, a very fiery and joyous and passionate song, with an opening snare beat that critics typically describe as “a gunshot” and an organ that makes you feel like you're in church, but lyrically it is incredibly depressing (i.e., “Ain't it hard when you discover that/he really wasn't where it's at/ after he took from you everything he could steal” and “You better take your diamond ring/you better pawn it, babe”). It took me a long time to figure out why the dichotomy is there, and what it means.

Finally, and what I feel to be the most important bit of the song, the chorus is a question. It's not a statement, or a piece of advice, or even a story like the folk songs he began by singing. Stories are good for reaching people, for including them, because everybody can relate to some bit of it, but questions are better because everybody's got their own answer. Questions, I think, more fully incorporate listeners than stories do. And not only does Dylan ask a question, he asks the right question: How does it feel to be on your own? This question gets at the heart of what everybody must go through to become who they are.

So if you put this information in front of you—that the song is at once joyful and sorrowful, that it is asking a version of the most important question, and that the subject of the song is you, the listener—you can begin to put the pieces together, lyric by lyric and note by note: this song is about your life. It's about what happens to you when you realize that your life has no meaning whatsoever, but that because of its lack of meaning, you can fill it with whatever meaning you wish. This song is about being everything and nothing at once; this song is about the work you have ahead of you, but also all the debts you do not owe. This song is about your freedom and your anonymity; this song is about defining yourself, about becoming who you are. This song is ashing your cigarette and walking out into the nighttime to do what needs to be done, facing the gunslinger; this song is the Great American Novel.

“It's All Over Now, Baby Blue,” seems to me to be the flip side of the same coin: this is an acoustic piece where “Like a Rolling Stone” is an electric piece; “Baby Blue” is hollow and wooden and solo where “Rolling Stone” is electric, metallic, and requires an entire backing band. Playing the songs back-to-back is a lovely view into that slice of Bob Dylan's artistic life, and his switch to rock 'n' roll that so many of his fans felt to be a betrayal when, really, it was a liberation. The two songs together mirror his loss of his hard-won fans and his simultaneous embrasure of what he knew he was becoming[1].

“It's All Over Now, Baby Blue,” is about change, about giving up what has turned to stone, what is weighing you down, and moving forward into the unknown and unexplored. This song is less about the jubilation you feel at finding you are free to be whatever you want, and more about the loss of the friends who will not come with you, who cannot see their way through to the other side of the mirror. This song is about the same female “you,” whose male lover, “who just walked out the door,” has just “taken all his blankets from the floor.” It is about the attempt to steel yourself for what comes next, and for the ache of loss that comes even when what you are losing is dead weight. “Like a Rolling Stone” is the celebration of tossing your baggage overboard and the subsequent relaxation of the knot between your shoulder blades, but “It's All Over Now, Baby Blue,” is the hand that reaches automatically into the overhead compartment for the bags that are no longer there.

It is important to play “It's All Over Now, Baby Blue” first and “Like a Rolling Stone” second.

And maybe Kings of Leon haven't exactly written two songs that completely encompass what it is to be human, but their albums sure do make me feel like ashing my cigarette and going out to face the gunslinger, so I fucking like Kings of Leon.

[1] To this day, I think Dylan is still known to most people as an integral part of the civil rights movement and a folk singer rather than a groundbreaking example of rugged individualism and one of the greatest rock 'n' roll artists to ever live. But all you have to do is open an issue of Rolling Stone magazine...need I go further? The entire goddamn rock and roll industry still shudders because he put his foot on their stage.

This post could not have been written without access to the book Like a Rolling Stone: Dylan at the Crossroads by Greil Marcus.

1 comment:

  1. Pro. It's nice to see this fire in your writing. Much love for the metaphors.