Friday, July 8, 2016

Chimes of Freedom: Dylan Rings It Out

We take it for granted now how nearly all knowledge, all literature, all music ever recorded, all experience has migrated to the internet these past two decades. Wikipedia alone has become a phenomenal knowledge and research resource. The saying goes that you can't trust what you find there, but for the most part it's a pretty reliable resource. Here's Wikipedia's opening description for its "Chimes Of Freedom" entry:

"Chimes of Freedom" is a song written and performed by Bob Dylan and featured on his 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan (see 1964 in music), produced by Tom Wilson. It was written in early 1964 and was influenced by the symbolist poetry of Arthur Rimbaud. The song depicts the feelings and thoughts of the singer and his companion as they wait out a lightning storm under a doorway. The singer expresses his solidarity with people who are downtrodden or otherwise treated unjustly, and believes that the thunder is tolling in sympathy for them. Music critic Paul Williams has described the song as Dylan's Sermon on the Mount. The song has been covered many times by different artists, including The Byrds, Jefferson Starship, Youssou N'Dour, Bruce Springsteen and U2.

A comparison to the Sermon on the Mount may be a bit of hyperbole but the song certainly aspires toward a higher zenith than you'd typically find in the songs of its time. 1964 was the year of the British Invasion, spearheaded by the Beatles performances on the Ed Sullivan Show. Their songs "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You" captured the top slots on the Billboard chart that year. Louis Armstrong ("Hello, Dolly") followed in third, Roy Orbison next with "Pretty Woman" and the Beach Boys placed fifth with "I Get Around." As you can see straight up Chimes Of Freedom is an utterly different breed of song, and Dylan was an altogether different breed of songwriter. Go through the rest of the list and you will find nothing like it.

Right off, from the opening lines, one is aware that we're in the presence of something wholly other.

Far between sundown’s finish an’ midnight’s broken toll
We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing
As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds
Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing

When all is said and done John Hinchey declares it to be "the most extravagantly self-indulgent song
Dylan has ever gotten away with. But he does get away with it here." This, too, is a bit of hyperbole.

When compared to the other songs on this album Hinchey calls it an anomaly. In this assessment the author of the Bob Dylan Commentaries agrees when he writes, "I have mixed feelings about the inclusion of this song on Another Side. It’s certainly an ambitious song, a great song, a song that makes a powerful statement. It’s nicely written and contains some very creative, powerful images. On the other hand, it does not fit in well with the small scale, personal songs of Another Side."

I disagree. It's a companion to "My Back Pages" which along with this song anchors Another Side in another sphere. The picture in my mind is a giant straddling a body of water, one foot planted on each of two shores. The first foot is rooted in traditional realm while the other foot is planted firmly in the new territory Dylan is headed toward in Bringing It All Back Home. I believe it would have been a mistake to leave this song off Another Side. And I'm more than comfortable with the context in which this song was introduced. In fact, it never entered my mind when I was young, middle-aged or old that it would have been better suited elsewhere, so natural does it feel in this context.

Perhaps it wasn't till the Bootleg Series collections emerged that one began to notice how challenging these albums may have been to assemble, or how many various options there were. Other outtakes included "Mama, You Been On My Mind", as well as a whole collection of songs recorded during those remarkabe early years that never saw release until The Bootleg Series Volume 9: The Witmark Demos came out in 2010.  I can imagine that it must have been agonizing as far as what to leave in and what to leave out for many of Dylan's albums but especially so in this time period.

The Byrds, with Jim McGuinn's jingle jangle 12-string Rickenbacker guitar and chorale harmonies, produced memorable versions of this and numerous other Dylan songs from the period including "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "My Back Pages." The Byrds were an early adopter of this stance that Dylan took, bringing philosophical and literary sensibilities into the rock realm. "Turn, Turn, Turn" which Pete Seger adopted from the famous passage in the Book of Ecclesiastes, was one of two songs The Byrds carried to number one on the pop charts.

Here are the lyrics to Dylan's "Chimes," a story in verse about a pair of friends huddled in a doorway while a thunderstorm is exploding. The flashing sky and crashing thunder becomes a metaphor for something greater.  

Chimes Of Freedom

Far between sundown’s finish an’ midnight’s broken toll
We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing
As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds
Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing
Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight
Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight
An’ for each an’ ev’ry underdog soldier in the night
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

In the city’s melted furnace, unexpectedly we watched
With faces hidden while the walls were tightening
As the echo of the wedding bells before the blowin’ rain
Dissolved into the bells of the lightning
Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake
Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked
Tolling for the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail
The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder
That the clinging of the church bells blew far into the breeze
Leaving only bells of lightning and its thunder
Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind
Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind
An’ the unpawned painter behind beyond his rightful time
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Through the wild cathedral evening the rain unraveled tales
For the disrobed faceless forms of no position
Tolling for the tongues with no place to bring their thoughts
All down in taken-for-granted situations
Tolling for the deaf an’ blind, tolling for the mute
Tolling for the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute
For the misdemeanor outlaw, chased an’ cheated by pursuit
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Even though a cloud’s white curtain in a far-off corner flashed
An’ the hypnotic splattered mist was slowly lifting
Electric light still struck like arrows, fired but for the ones
Condemned to drift or else be kept from drifting
Tolling for the searching ones, on their speechless, seeking trail
For the lonesome-hearted lovers with too personal a tale
An’ for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Starry-eyed an’ laughing as I recall when we were caught
Trapped by no track of hours for they hanged suspended
As we listened one last time an’ we watched with one last look
Spellbound an’ swallowed ’til the tolling ended
Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed
For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse
An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing
Copyright © 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1992 by Special Rider Music

* * * *

EndNotes: Many of the performers of the early Greenwich Village scene have become legendary. Among them were names like Phil Ochs, Dave Von Ronk, Ramblin' Jack Elliot and countless others. One of these, who made his appearance in 1964 and immediately garnered attention, was a singer/songwriter named Eric Andersen. In two weeks Andersen will be performing here in the town of Bob Dylan's birth.

The Armory Arts and Music Center is presenting Eric Andersen in his first-ever appearance in Duluth, along with a return visit by Scarlet Rivera, as part of the fifth annual benefit concert to support the Armory. Andersen and Rivera first performed together at the debut Rolling Thunder Revue show at the historic Gerde’s Folk City in 1975. Concert details and ticket information can be found here on Facebook.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Open your eyes!

No comments: