Thursday, June 26, 2014

Reflecting on One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later) from Dylan's Blonde on Blonde

A few years ago, during one of the Dylan Days festivals here in the Northland, I was asked what I thought was Dylan's best album. I replied that I can pick a favorite from every decade, possibly (though not really). But best of all time? That would be an impossibility. He then told me Blonde on Blonde was Dylan's best. Making that kind of call is easier for some people than for the rest of us, I suppose.

There is no question that Blonde on Blonde is one of the great ones. It was the third in that trilogy of albums that pushed the limits of everything, and it has so many great songs, including Visions of Johanna and Fourth Time Around and Absolutely Sweet Marie and Just Like a Woman and Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Tonight.

At the time of its release I didn't measure it by the quality of the songs, however. My first reaction was that it was a double album with not as much content as most double albums. That is, I was measuring its value as if... well, like a restaurant where they serve a large plate of pasta for a so-so price as opposed to a fine restaurant with fabulous food and smaller portions. It's a weird way to measure value by volume, but I'm being embarrassingly honest. It wasn't till years later that I really appreciated the achievements of this collection of compositions.

John Hinchey, in his book Like a Complete Unknown, considers One of Us Must Know to be one of Dylan's greatest songs. That's pretty high praise, considering the caliber of his portfolio. First off, he says (which I could never say) that he could imagine himself writing some of the other stellar songs on this album, but could not imagine himself writing the subtle complexity One of Us Must Know.

Hinchey's exegesis of the lyrics takes up nine pages, beginning with the dichotomy between the personal and transcendental elements of the song. The chorus repeats the sense that one of the two people in this interaction is yet to "get it." And to the non-analytical listener one might read sarcasm in these lines.

But Hinchey sees deeper. And when finished he finds the narrator traumatized by both positions, the one who also took what happened personal, and who did not know what really happened, but hoped sooner or later to know.

I'm watching The Last Picture Show and finding parallels to the confusion these young people are encountering in their youthful coming-of-age experiences. Later in life we overthink everything, but youth, lacking experience, is unable to comprehend so many of the behaviors and manipulations of others and responses to one's own actions that occur. It's all new terrain.

In the third verse of the song as Dylan sings, "Your voice was all that I heard," he doesn't mean that her voice drowned everything else out. Rather, he is saying that the meaning of her words was finally coming through. "I got it," he is saying.

Too often we latch onto the meanings of words without hearing what is really being said. The result is that our conversations become incomprehensible. Our literal words, instead of conveying meanings, create walls between us when they are taken so literally. Perhaps this is what post-modern philosophers are getting at when they suggest that true communication between human persons is impossible.

Hinchey draws attention to the last line in each verse as offering increasingly revelatory insights. "I didn't now you were saying goodbye for good," and "I didn't realize how young you were," ultimately culminate in "I never really meant to do you any harm."  What did he intend? What really happened? Wikipedia describes the song as an emotional confession of misconnects and apologies from the singer to a woman who has tragically slipped out of his life.

We've all been in these strangely painful places where the ground beneath our feet is shifting, where uncertainty creates a fog, where expectations are ambiguous and outcomes out of our control.

The song has been performed live 60 times from 1976 to 1997.

One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)

I didn’t mean to treat you so bad
You shouldn’t take it so personal
I didn’t mean to make you so sad
You just happened to be there, that’s all
When I saw you say “goodbye” to your friend and smile
I thought that it was well understood
That you’d be comin’ back in a little while
I didn’t know that you were sayin’ “goodbye” for good

But, sooner or later, one of us must know
You just did what you’re supposed to do
Sooner or later, one of us must know
That I really did try to get close to you

I couldn’t see what you could show me
Your scarf had kept your mouth well hid
I couldn’t see how you could know me
But you said you knew me and I believed you did
When you whispered in my ear
And asked me if I was leavin’ with you or her
I didn’t realize just what I did hear
I didn’t realize how young you were

But, sooner or later, one of us must know
You just did what you’re supposed to do
Sooner or later, one of us must know
That I really did try to get close to you

I couldn’t see when it started snowin’
Your voice was all that I heard
I couldn’t see where we were goin’
But you said you knew an’ I took your word
And then you told me later, as I apologized
That you were just kiddin’ me, you weren’t really from the farm
An’ I told you, as you clawed out my eyes
That I never really meant to do you any harm

But, sooner or later, one of us must know
You just did what you’re supposed to do
Sooner or later, one of us must know
That I really did try to get close to you

Copyright © 1966 by Dwarf Music; renewed 1994 by Dwarf Music

Original paintings on this page by ed newman.


Zhuang Lemon Duck said...

"Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Tonight"


I guess I missed that one.

Anonymous said...

Nice evaluation of the song, but the remark about this double record having less content than other double albums is strange, it was the first together with Freak Out by the Mothers, and that one had even less minutes (and a lot of crap added at the end of brilliance). Of course there were samplers but...
with regards
hans altena

Ed Newman said...

anon: I was comparing it to the length of the qty of music on some of his other albums. I was young and silly. A couple years earlier the reason I liked Like a Rolling Stone was because it was the longest 45 record at the jr high school dance so I could for twice as long (slow) with Nancy Black. At the time I had no clue of its significance beyond being a slow song to dance to.

mitch said...

while it may not be useful to judge a double LP (or a single LP) on the number of minutes of play, judging a 45 by the number of minutes of play is - and your example is excellent - not at all out of line. after all, this is a rock and roll record - according to some, THE rock and roll record - and if rock and roll can't book a teenage boy three extra minutes with Nancy Black, then we have all been very wrong to listen so closely.

Anonymous said...

Like A Rolling Stone seems like a strange song to slow dance to lol ... then again in 8th grade or whatever, it probably didn't matter.

Ed Newman said...

Zuang: Haha ... Good catch. Funny. I write in the morning, was probably typing the song title but thinking about "tonight" (now last night) ... Often I go back and correct things but your note made me smile so I leave it here.
Thanks for the note.

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