…In the sixties, I mean.
Nashville Skyline, which Dylan released in 1969, was the first album from him that could have been mistaken for being disengaged from the times. Not only is there nothing like an obvious protest song–in either topical or abstract form–the singing and playing are literally old-fashioned to a fault, a move that’s emphasized by a lead track that’s a duet with Johnny Cash in his best vocal equivalent of blank-verse.
But, while Skyline was superficially treated at the time (and for the most part since) as a version of “country rock”–or, having been recorded in Nashville itself with truly modest arrangements–just “country” that happened to be recorded by a rock star, it was really rooted in a musical value system that was more akin to nineteenth century parlor music.
Beyond the superficial, I don’t know if this comes as news to anybody but me. I’ll confess I’m not really up on whatever deep scholarship might exist concerning this album. And, to tell the truth, I’ve never really listened to it much outside of two tracks which happened to be on one of those old two-fer-one oldies’ forty-fives that record companies used to put out in the seventies and early eighties. I bought the 45 (long before I even knew there was an album called Nashville Skyline) for the A-side (“Lay Lady Lay”) and started listening to the B-side (“I Threw It All Away”) a few years later, after I read Greil Marcus’ famous “Presliad” essay in Mystery Train, where, in 1974, he had imagined it as something like Elvis Presley’s epitaph several years before Elvis’ death.
As I’ve been gradually striving for some sort of Dylan completism on CD in recent years, I ordered Nashville Skyline (which finishes the sixties!) on disc and it showed up in the mail yesterday, then found its way to my automobile’s good old-fashioned CD player (so-o-o-o twentieth century) last evening, when I had to drive in to work to figure out why my twenty-first century computer wasn’t linking the office (construction messing with the internet btw, and no telling when it will be fixed, so if you think I’ve been doing some slow posting here lately, don’t worry, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!).
Forced to be alone with the entire record and give it my full attention for once, I might not have found much more in it than I ever found before. Except that, in context, a throwaway ditty called “Peggy Day” sounded so exactly like a man who wasn’t much of a singer trying to woo a sweetheart in 1905 somewhere in an Indiana living room with hardwood floors gleaming and Booth Tarkington taking notes for a short story, that I found it irresistibly charming and even–for 1969–a bit daring and even visionary.
Mind you, I say that is how it sounded. I got no notion, merely from listening to that sound, as to what the song might be about, though I’d be surprised to learn it was about much.
What the pure sound of the thing did, however, was haul the track that came before it (which happened to be “I Threw It All Away”) and the track that came after (which happened to be “Lay Lady Lay”) into a new kind of light.
“Lay Lady Lay” (rather like Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of “(Leaving On A) Jet Plane”–which hit #1 not long after Dylan’s record hit the Top Ten, but which had been recorded and released as an album track three years earlier and which I could easily imagine having informed Dylan’s increasingly laid back vocal approach throughout the late sixties) suddenly sounded like a search for peace among terrible turmoil.
And, while I didn’t hit the track search and go back to “I Threw It All Away,” it lingered in my mind until after midnight, when I was home again and found myself glued to CNN’s episode from its series on The Sixties, which was either about Martin Luther King or the Civil Rights Movement in general (having missed the intro, I couldn’t tell).
And, amidst the street-level tumult and mountain-top shouting, I found that: “Once I had mountains, in the palm of my hand, and rivers that ran through every day/I must have been mad, I never knew what I had…until, I threw it all away” no longer had anything to do with Elvis Presley or Bob Dylan’s lost lover, and had become irrevocably about, well, 1969.
And all of us.
So much for being disengaged.