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!

Hoisting himself onto the train, settling into his seat, the singer wasn’t merely confident, he was cocksure. ‘And he asked me my name,’ he remembers. As he spins the incident back, he can feel how he’d pulled away, and underneath the anxiety, that’s how he sings it, a cold half-smile on his face, his fish-eye surveying the coachman’s mug. ‘And he ... asked me my name.’ For as long as that little pause holds – tilting the weight of the phrase onto its last word, ‘name’ – the singer is still telling this story, writing its script, acting it out; with an edge of amusement he retains his mask, holding his name like a poker player holds his cards to his vest. My name? Perhaps you’re lacking one yourself? Yes, that’s what he should have said! Too bad it’s too late. ‘And he ...’

Over the bright, playful pulse of the organ and piano, that pause suspends the story and the music with it, even as the music continues. It’s a perfect moment. It is unstable. The singer drags his breath across his tongue as if his fingers are caressing a gun. Leather hat on his head, serapé on his shoulders, cheroot stuck in his face, deadpan, Clint Eastwood squints at the coachman, until he sees that the coachman has turned into Billy the Kid, with Billy’s last words, ‘Quien es? Quien es?’ now caught in the throat of the Man with No Name. By the time the singer gets to ‘my name’ his knees are water. The coachman looks down on him, waiting. The singer says his name: Nobody.

One step forward, one step back: the first verse of ‘Lo and Behold!’ makes a story in melody and speech as shapely and complete as one of Hawthorne’s ‘twice-told tales’ of humiliation and withdrawal (‘The Shaker Bridal’, say, or ‘The Minister’s Black Veil’), as doomstruck as one of Melville’s fables of embarkation (the first chapter of The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, entitled ‘A mute goes aboard a boat on the Mississippi’ – where there is no dialogue, only a series of hand-lettered signs proceeding from ‘Charity thinketh no evil’ to ‘NO TRUST’). Still, the song hums along, from stop to stop, the train running from station to station, each verse promising a new adventure but never quite realising it. The singer meets a woman on the next leg of his journey, but they fall into obscene banter (‘What’s the matter, Molly dear? What’s the matter with your mound?’) and she hands him a dismissal (‘What’s it to ya, Moby Dick?’) as thorough as the one he detected in the coachman’s question. Big deals turn into little dreams: a herd of moose the singer buys his girl becomes a truck he thinks he might pick up in Tennessee. ‘Gonna save my money and rip it up,’ he says hopefully; Memphis trucker Elvis is on his mind and maybe laughing at the singer’s conceit. Every verse is full of fill-in-the-gaps, no tale holds and neither does the teller’s voice: line to line, syllable to syllable, Dylan goes from eager to disgusted, smug to wary, prophetic to intrigued, bragging to couldn’t-care-less. Soon it’s as if all the openness in the song – the prospect of great novelties and thrills which at first seemed to be its subject – has been sucked up by the rhythm, merrily pushing forward in a manner that all too quickly seems inexorable, circular; ultimately there is nowhere to go but back to Pittsburgh.

The chorus goes in another direction. It is both self-mocking and yearning – the lament of a man who wants to take off his mask and shout. But throughout every story in ‘Lo and Behold!’, there is really only one voice, and that voice is the mask itself – ‘a portable heirloom’, Constance Rourke wrote in 1931 in American Humor: A Study of the National Character, ‘handed down by the pioneer’. She was looking into the face of the Yankee pedlar, the original travelling salesman, the confidence-man, proffering his calico and patent medicine, asbestos insulation, breast implants and Amway dealerships. He looks you right in the face; his own betrays no doubt, no greed, no fear, shame least of all. Rourke wrote:

In a primitive world crowded with pitfalls the unchanging, unaverted countenance had been a safeguard, preventing revelations of surprise, anger, or dismay. The mask had otherwise become habitual among the older Puritans as their more expressive or risible feelings were sunk beneath the surface ... No doubt the mask would remain useful in a country where the Puritan was still a power and the risks of pioneering by no means over.

You might call this mask – which conceals the voice no less than the face – Yankee-Midwestern, though it is also Appalachian, mountain-still, a speech made as much of silences as of words. The mask became in the 19th century what would come to be called the deadpan, the poker-face: precisely the look the coachman in ‘Lo and Behold!’ wipes off the singer’s face. The voice is dulled, unimpressed; as Rourke says, unsurprised. Those who avail themselves of this voice mean to suggest that they can’t be surprised even by the weather – that is, by God – and that this is their claim on life; it’s why they expect you to listen to them, regardless of whether what they’re saying makes sense. The voice is so flat that with the slightest inflection it can say anything, imply anything, while seeming merely to pass the time of day.

This is the sound of the bluesman Frank Hutchison, to whom Bob Dylan would return in 1993 for the version of ‘Stack A Lee’ (‘a romance tale without the cupidity,’ Dylan wrote) he offered on World Gone Wrong; it is the sound of drugstore speech in Hibbing, Minnesota, in 1949; it’s the sound of William Burroughs waiting out a blizzard in a depot fifty miles north of Wichita. ‘Yes, that’s ol’ Junkie Bill, over by the stove there, just whittlin’ on his penis,’ says the station master, while Bill mumbles to himself:

The buyer has a steady connection: the man within, you might say, or so he thinks. I’ll just set in my room, he says: Fuck ’em all, squares on both sides; I am the only complete man in the industry. But a yen comes on him like a great black wind, through the bones ... The buyer had lost his human citizenship, and was in consequence a creature without species, and a menace to the narcotics industry, at all levels ...

This is prairie-flat and Babbitt-plain, a world conspiracy outlined in the modest tones of a small businessman describing a small job. Just below the surface, it’s both music – ‘Fuck ’em all’ expanding into a great curl, ‘Fuck ’em awwwlllll’, then the delivery of ‘squares’ nearly flipping the word on its back – and anthropology, a field recording: ‘American Vernacular, Kansas/Missouri (Science Fiction)’. ‘The humorous story is American, the comic story is English, the witty story is French,’ Mark Twain wrote in ‘How to Tell a Story’. ‘The humorous story depends for its effects upon the manner of telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter ... The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it.’ That is Bob Dylan throughout the basement recordings, and most completely in ‘Lo and Behold!’; that is Burroughs on Call Me Burroughs, an Ishmael’s album of Naked Lunch readings that was a talisman of cool in Greenwich Village in 1965 and ’66 – and, cast as blues on a lap slide-guitar, that was Frank Hutchison. In the early Sixties, on the old-timey LPs and precious 78s of the folk revival, Hutchison was to some a talisman of even greater cool.

It’s Hutchison whom Dylan takes for granted in ‘Lo and Behold!’ – the avatar that Dylan, with intent or more likely without it, takes as a first principle. Hutchison’s airy, blasted, dead-drunk pieces are little exercises in sardonicism that by the end of a tune may have locked a grin on the singer’s face like tetanus; his songs lie beneath the masked voice in ‘Lo and Behold!’, not as something to outdo or transcend but as a tradition to explore for whatever stories it might have told, but didn’t.

Frank Hutchison was born in 1897 in Raleigh County, West Virginia, and grew up in nearby Logan County – both about seventy-five miles north of the Virginia Appalachians, a region that produced some of the richest and most idiosyncratic blues America has known. As a small boy he tagged behind a visiting black labourer, drawn by the sound of the man’s guitar; as an adult he was able to make his living mostly as a musician, on occasion as a blacked-up comedian. He recorded for the first time in 1926, for the last time in 1929, after which the Depression killed off such marginal enterprises as phonograph records for specialty markets like the hillbilly trade; best remembered for ‘The Train that Carried the Girl from Town’, Hutchison died in 1945 in Dayton, Ohio, disappointed and out of place. He had angels’ fingers, and the voice of a man who’s seen it all and loves more than anything to think back, facedown in a memory, in Rosanne Cash’s phrase, as if some overlooked opportunity for revenge or solace might still be found.

‘All right, boys, this is Frank Hutchison, settin’ back in the Union Square Hotel, just gettin’ right on good red liquor,’ he announced in ‘K.C. Blues’. It wasn’t a typical sentiment. Hutchison liked to fade a note away from a theme, a word off its phrase, to let his music go like smoke into the air. It’s a common blues technique, but here it feels like musing, philosophy, an idea of revelation: the revelation being that the meaning of any incidence of love or money will always elude whoever wants it most. A high, thin bottleneck sound rises up in ‘Cannon Ball Blues’, as if to escape the resignation of the song – and then as if it isn’t worth the effort. The back-and-forth tug of war on the piano in ‘Lo and Behold!’ is close to what Hutchison’s music is about: a tired, so-what refusal to wait around for the punchline to the joke everyone calls life along with a willingness to wait around for ever in the vague hope that the joke might be on someone else. In the long, drawn-out ‘Worried Blues’ – at times it almost seems to stop, besotted with the pointlessness of it all – big notes slide up the strings, circling around and around, until sorrow fades into laughter, laughter into regret, regret into the oblivion of a six-day drunk. The delivery is level. No one word is emphasised more than any other; it is all as far from the drama of peaks and valleys as the patterns traced by a finger in dust.

When I leave here
Just hang crêpe on your door
When I leave here
Just hang crêpe on your door
I won’t be dead
Just won’t be here no more

If you don’t think that’s funny you’re in the wrong country – or the wrong bar, not the bar Hutchison calls up in song after song with his trademark gather-round, bringing the boys together for one more drink before they head home to the joke that has no punchline. Small, prickling high notes are the pins and needles of Hutchison’s worried blues, which

Make you b’lieve the world is upside down
They make you b’lieve, the world is upside down
I’ve travelled this world
Boys, it’s all around

‘All ay-round,’ he sings, treasuring the word, thinking it through, and it’s this expiring tone – the tone of one who isn’t dead, just gone – that allows Dylan in turn to tell the most extravagant, half-cracked stories in ‘Lo and Behold!’, and to do so as if there were no statement, no detail, no emotion that couldn’t be retracted, because in this tone, whatever sounds uncertain, foolish or hysterical can as easily leave you wondering if you heard anything at all. ‘Now, I come in on a Ferris wheel,’ Dylan opens the last verse of the song, a hint of delight in his voice (why not, after coming up with an entrance worthy of the mythic Texas wrangler Pecos Bill?), ‘and boys, I sure was slick. I come in like a ton of bricks, laid a few tricks on ’em’ – and that delight is quickly obscured as the language drifts from the grand to the ordinary. You can imagine a man getting off a train with the flair and glamour of someone riding into town on a Ferris wheel; the line is sung in such a matter-of-fact way you can even imagine someone riding into town on a Ferris wheel. You’re framing the shot – the singer on his Ferris wheel like a cowboy on his horse – before Dylan is halfway through his next line, but it’s only the life in the image of the Ferris wheel that pushes at the dulled voice, which is suspicious before it is interested, can’t-fool-me before it’s whatta-you-got; by the fourth line the mask is back in place, if it was ever off. ‘Goin’ back to Pittsburgh,’ Dylan says to finish the verse, in the most elegantly, happily self-erasing lyric of his writing life, the joke finally complete, not that he won’t embellish it. ‘Goin’ back to Pittsburgh, count up to thirty,’ he says. ‘Round that horn and ride that herd. Gonna thread up.’ Got anything better you want to do? Well, then, might as well thread up – as if anyone knows or cares what that means. He’ll go back to Pittsburgh if that’s where the train is going.

All well and good, except that this journey – starting up eager with every verse, arriving nowhere soon enough – is only half the song. There is also the plea of the chorus – ‘Lo and behold!’ – the voice there breaking through the mask, for a moment oblivious of its fatalism, its fear, its Appalachian refusal to acknowledge that there might be new things under the sun. With every chorus, the mask is stripped from the journey-man’s face by a comic, frustrated but liberating demand for a sighting of whatever has never been seen in those things that are seen every day, a demand for revelations in the face of a mask meant to deny them. Retrieving the rhythm after the pause which concludes each chorus, the piano and organ gaily chug the piece on its way. Caught up in the pleasure of the motion, you need notice nothing more.

‘A portable heirloom’: the mask was accepted as readily by Bob Dylan in 1967 as it was by Melville’s shrivelling scrivener Bartleby in the bureaucratic aftermath of the Jacksonian Revolution, or by Francis Coppola’s fratricidal Michael Corleone in the Cold War utopia of the Fifties, or by The Turner Diaries’ stone-faced Timothy McVeigh in 1995, just months after the United States began a shift from the republic of inclusion shaped by Lincoln, Carnegie, and King to the republic of exclusion prophesied by Cotton Mather, John D. Rockefeller and George Lincoln Rockwell. The mask was accepted by Dylan, but worn more lightly. In ‘Lo and Behold!’ it floats just in front of the singer’s face.

The most delicate and intense of the basement songs are like a play about the old American mask, a theatre for its ritual assumption, removal, and replacement. ‘Lo and Behold!’ is a summation of the whole haphazard, instinctive basement project. Looking for my lo and behold! This is a demand for visions. In its very wariness, its holding back, its sly and careful shadings, the song reclaims a nation as if it were still new, still unsettled. Time is longer than rope. We are in a landscape where no one trusts anyone else and self-doubt is strongest of all, but it is also on the traverse of this territory that the Puritan climbs down from the pioneer’s back or the pioneer bucks the Puritan off, after which, for an untimed moment at least as long as the rope that binds them, they continue west or double back in step, sometimes with visions hanging in the sky before them – Judgment Day or just weather, they can’t tell.

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.