Saturday, September 18, 2010

The greatest song ever written

The morning dj on my favorite radio station (Lin Brehmer on WXRT-FM, 93.1 on your FM dial, or over the limitless internet) frequently tells us he's about to play "the greatest song ever written (I think he up to 193 of them so far). It is, of course, just a little trope, but it always makes me think...what is, for me, the greatest song ever written? Which is, of course, just a trope for me.

But there are three songs for which I can remember the first time I ever heard them, so maybe that'll do for a start.

"Mr Tambourine Man," which came out on Bringing It All Back Home in March 1965...I heard it first when three of us were driving around the east side of Indianapolis in a 1957 Chevy convertible and it came on the radio. Which was tuned to WBZ in Boston. I heard Dylan's version before I heard the Byrds' truncation of it, and I can still hear that song anytime I want.

"Though you might hear laughin’, spinnin’,
Swingin’ madly across the sun
It’s not aimed at anyone,
It’s just escapin’ on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facin’
And if you hear vague traces
Of skippin’ reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time,
It’s just a ragged clown behind
I wouldn’t pay it any mind
It’s just a shadow you’re seein’ that he’s chasing..."

The ending especially:

"Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
With one hand waving free
Sillouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sands
With no memory or fate
Driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today
Until tomorrow..."

There's not a wasted word, not a wasted syllable in the whole song...

Five years later, I was driving from Madison, Wisconsin, to Greencastle, Indiana, on bitterly cold February night, just north of Wolcott, Indiana. The snow was so deep that I felt like I was driving in a tunnel (but the pavement had been plowed), when, all of a sudden, on a radio station I don't remember (but it must have been Chicago), I heard this:

"When you're weary
Feeling small
When tears are in your eyes
I will dry them all..."

I felt like I already knew that song, like I could sing along with it having never heard it before...

"I'm on your side
When times get rough
And friends just can't be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down..."

I felt like Paul Simon had heached into my head and managed to know what I felt...

"When you're down and out
When you're on the street
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you
I'll take your part
When darkness comes
And pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down..."

I felt like I was sailing, through the black night, to somewhere I would be safe...

"Sail on silver girl, sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
If you need a friend
I'm sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind."

I can still hear Art's beautiful tenor and feel the music. Right then, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" seemed like the greatest song ever written.

Another five years, January 1975. Another road trip. This time, driving from Bowling Green, Kentucky to Indianapolis, Indiana. Somewhere around Louisville this:

"Early one morning the sun was shinin'
I was layin' in bed
Wond'rin' if she'd changed at all
If her hair was still red..."

Another vision of which I felt like I was a part...

"So now I’m goin’ back again
I got to get to her somehow
All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenters’ wives
Don’t know how it all got started
I don’t know what they do with their lives
But me, I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint

We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue."

No one had to tell me it was Bob Dylan (again changing my life). I can still sing that song to myself, and I often do. "Tangled Up in Blue" still makes me stop and listen (and, to this day, I think that Blood on the Tracks has to be one of Dylan's four or five best albums).

(An addendum, about something which, believe it or not, I hadn't noticed until I was writing this post. Look at how the perspective shifts from verse to verse:

"I was laying in bed..."

"She was married when we first met..."

I had a job in the great north woods..."

"She was working in a topless place..."

"I lived with them on Montagu Street..."

Ending with the narrator:

"So now I'm going back again..."

It's an amazing song.)

Are these the greatest songs ever written? Well, probably not. But they are the only ones I can place in time and space, the only ones that I can hear, every time, as if it were the first time...