Time Longer than Rope

Greil Marcus writes about Bob Dylan and the basement recordings

‘Lo and Behold!’ opens on the rails, the first notes on the piano setting the wheels in motion, the singer with one foot on the platform and the other foot on the train as it pulls out within the room. It’s the summer of 1967, in the basement of Big Pink, a couple of months into fooling with old tunes, moving across a common landscape, new songs now coming in a rush; almost three decades later, you can still hear Garth Hudson snap the switch.

He clicks on the tape-recorder for the second take of the afternoon. The first time they’d been pressing through the number, the piano, bass, and acoustic guitar piling the rhythm up at the end of a phrase, the feel of a mind changing cramped by a tight vocal, the actor’s mask not settling onto the singer’s skin, the singer improvising a last line out of frustration: ‘We’re all gonna go to sleep!’ Now Hudson turns back to his organ to catch up with the hard, hesitating count already locked in as a theme by the piano. Almost subliminally, he rolls the piano’s one-step-forward, one-step-back into a better beat. The doubt and trepidation that mark the borders of the song aren’t lessened, but the territory within is singing with energy; the uncertainty that a moment before said fear now says who cares. The rhythm becomes a chase after pleasure; the chase is caught and let loose for the pleasure of chasing it down again. With every chorus Bob Dylan and Richard Manuel lift their voices and then abandon them, stranding their words right at the edge of a cliff, suspending the sound in dead silence until the next verse begins. It’s a stark, shuddering effect, the pleasure cut like a heater in a cheap hotel turning itself off; you stick in a coin, it starts up again.

The hesitation in the song is now dramatised, something to see, but also hiding inside the beat – a second song that only the singer will recognise. Nevertheless the music has gained an irresistible momentum, a lift off the ground. This is a train you want to board, but like so many trains in American song, from Casey Jones’s Illinois Central 638 to the 16-coach cannonball in the Carter Family’s ‘Worried Man Blues’, it’s a train that could be easier to get on than get off.

The train runs smoothly even as the rhythm pulls against itself: first stop San Antonio, Texas, next stop Pittsburgh, PA, a side trip to Tennessee, then back to Pittsburgh – you don’t say. No wonder there’s a kind of stammer in half the claims the singer makes. ‘I never felt so good,’ he tells us of the journey’s start, relaxing into the memory. In the next instant the coachman asks him for his ticket, no problem, he’s got a ticket, then for his name.

His name? He’s not supposed to have to tell his name. Suddenly all his confidence is gone, as if the seat holding his back has fallen away just as the chorus does. Now he is faced with a demand that goes beyond the endlessly rehearsed gestures of fellowship and distance, acknowledgment and evasion, presentation and disappearance – the very stuff of Tocqueville’s democratic walk down the street. The gestures here are those of surrendering a ticket and nothing more. This is an encounter in which the assumption of moral equality between two parties guarantees that they can exchange moral goods – a ticket fairly purchased, a train ride in return – without really meeting: without asking who the other is. But the coachman has broken the rules. He has violated the assumption of equality by adopting a posture of authority; for no reason the man who felt so good can discover, the coachman has asked for too much. Who are you? Whatever the singer brought onto the train turns out to be worthless. His name? ‘I give it to him right away,’ Dylan sings, hurry and bafflement in his voice, then the hurry bleeding out, the bafflement shading into regret: ‘And I hung my head in shame.’

From a country of thousand-mile vistas in the first line of the song, the man who was filled with anticipation has by the end of the verse arrived in a country of hide-outs and become a creature of guilt. The verse is over and the moving train is now a trap; Manuel doubles Dylan from the other side of the room, his voice heavy, Dylan’s straining. Barely audible in Dylan’s corner, Rick Danko adds a high echo:

Lo and behold!
Lo and behold!
Looking for my
Lo and behold
Get me out of here, my dear man!

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Lo and Behold!

Bob Dylan

I pulled out for San Anton’,
I never felt so good.
My woman said she’d meet me there
And of course, I knew she would.
The coachman, he hit me for my hook
And he asked me my name.
I give it to him right away,
Then I hung my head in shame.
Lo and behold! Lo and behold!
Lookin’ for my lo and behold,
Get me outa here, my dear man!

I come into Pittsburgh
At six-thirty flat.
I found myself a vacant seat
An’ I put down my hat.
‘What’s the matter, Molly, dear
What’s the matter with your mound?’
‘What’s it to ya, Moby Dick?
This is chicken town!’
Lo and behold! Lo and behold!
Lookin’ for my lo and behold,
Get me outa here, my dear man!

I bought my girl
A herd of moose,
One she could call her own.
Well, she came out the very next day
To see where they had flown.
I’m goin’ down to Tennessee,
Get me a truck ’r somethin’.
Gonna save my money and rip it up!
Lo and behold! Lo and behold!
Lookin’ for my lo and behold,
Get me outa here, my dear man!

Now I come in on a ferris wheel
An’ boys, I sure was slick.
I come in like a ton of bricks,
Laid a few tricks on ’em.
Goin’ back to Pittsburgh,
Count up to thirty,
Round that horn and ride that herd,
Gonna thread up!
Lo and behold! Lo and behold!
Lookin’ for my lo and behold,
Get me outa here, my dear man!

Used by permission of Dwarf Music. All rights reserved.