Thin Wild Mercury Sound of Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan in the cross-hairs – Sean Wilentz and Christopher Ricks take sides

By Stephen Pate – 6th in the series. Just like a painting is more than the sum of paints, canvas and brush, Dylan historian Sean Wilentz and Dylan poetry critic Christopher Ricks try to reconcile the words and music to the sound of Bob Dylan.

The earlier and 5th article in the series is  Bob Dylan Facts When Someone Attacks Your Imagination.

Part 6 – Thin Wild Mercury Sound of Bob Dylan

Sean Wilentz  – I would only add, though, the words and music … The thing that’s sometimes left out is the instrumentation … Is the music music. Not the tune and the melody, but the sound, and the sound is deeply important to Dylan.

Featured image – Al Kooper and Bob Dylan during Blonde on Blonde recording

Bob Dylan: Visions Of Johanna video: Ron Talley from Ron Talley on Vimeo.

Christopher Ricks – Yeah, and I’m not good on sound. Greil Marcus is the only Dylan critic, I think, who is brilliant on catching what a voice sounds like; setting down in words what a voice sounds like. I think Marcus is extraordinary.

Bob Shelton was able to do it. The sleeve notes on the first album, not only the review by Bob Shelton, but the sleeve notes as Stacey Williams, he has the wonderful impressionistic notions of what Dylan does to a word when he pulls it out, and it’s really lovely. It’s a prose poem, to go back to your thought.

I’m not good on voice. Are you good on voice?


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Sean Wilentz – I try. I’m mostly into the instruments, the thing about mercury sound, this is something that he was talking about.

He talked about the kind of music he wanted, the sound he tried to get. In an interview, he talked about the “thin, wild mercury sound” that he had on “Blonde on Blonde”.

There are a lot of ways to parse that, but one thing is a certain combination of harmonica, guitar, especially the lower part of the lower notes on the guitar, and a particular kind of organ, that Al Kooper was playing.

Out of that combination comes a sound, and without that sound, you don’t have that record. That’s the sound.  Al Kooper says it’s the sound of 3 am. Nobody gets it better, even Frank Sinatra.

That comes not just from his voice,  it doesn’t come from the fact that it was 3 am when they were cutting a lot of those records. It comes from the sound that he produced. That is something that’s crucial to Dylan, and sometimes gets forgotten.

Let’s take the case of “Blonde on Blonde”. He insisted on recording live. He records a lot of things live, and in fact, his producer in Nashville only figured out how to get the album done by taking down what they called baffles. Baffles are things that separate the different musicians from one another, so they don’t bleed into each other’s microphones.

He took down the baffles. They were going to play as if they were on stage. It’s all 1 or 2 takes, but realize that before, long before Dylan even showed up in the studio, Al Kooper was down from the mountaintop, teaching all of these guys, who were brilliant musicians.  They didn’t have to take a lot of time learning it, what exactly Dylan wanted on that record.

There’s a lot of prep work. It’s like being a professor, actually. You give the lecture, but a lot of work goes on behind it.

Christopher Ricks – I’m glad you think that.

Sean Wilentz I do. You’re spontaneous?

Christopher Ricks – That’s what it is? I’m just thinking of my colleagues, who seem to me never to do anything except wander in with an old envelope, on the back of which they’ve jotted down “John Donne?”

Dylan doesn’t work that way. I know he did, and he does that on a lot of his records.

This one record where he didn’t, which is a brilliant one, where he just sort of walked in and did it, and it came off in one night, and it was superb, which was Another side of Bob Dylan. He just came in and did it.

There’s a lot more.  Dylan is, he’s not artifice, but he is a craftsman. He does not let that stuff slide. He knows what he’s doing, because he wants spontaneity. He doesn’t want to be over-dubbed. He doesn’t want to be dull. He doesn’t want it to be manufactured. He doesn’t want it to be invented. He wants it to be live. That’s part of what he gets from the Beats, and lots of other things.

He approaches it with a great sense of craft, right down to what microphone he’s using, and that’s all very important to him.

Christopher Ricks –  There’s one,  you’ve probably heard it, there are 10 or 12 successive versions of “Tell Ol’ Bill” in rehearsal.

There’s a lot more.  Dylan is, he’s not artifice, but he is a craftsman. He does not let that stuff slide. He knows what he’s doing, because he wants spontaneity. He doesn’t want to be over-dubbed. He doesn’t want to be dull. He doesn’t want it to be manufactured. He doesn’t want it to be invented. He wants it to be live. That’s part of what he gets from the Beats, and lots of other things.

He approaches it with a great sense of craft, right down to what microphone he’s using, and that’s all very important to him.

Christopher Ricks –  There’s one,  you’ve probably heard it, there are 10 or 12 successive versions of “Tell Ol’ Bill” in rehearsal.

Sean Wilentz Yep.

Christopher Ricks – It’s not, I think, a great song. It’s certainly an immensely better song than I can imagine writing.  You just hear 10 or 12 versions, minor key, and then … It’s really a fascinating thing. The relation with his musicians is terrifically good in it.

He says, “I can’t hear this coming in,” and so they cut out the turnaround. There are just these moments where it’s really very educative. It’s almost as good as the scene, teaching dancing in “Dirty Dancing”. I think that’s one of the greatest things that we have on the screen, what it is to try to teach somebody something. It’s very, very moving and good; best bit of the film, I thought.

Sean Wilentz Absolutely.

Next – Bob Dylan Bootlegs and Outtakes

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End Note

Sean Wilentz is the author of Bob Dylan in America, the highly regarded book about Bob Dylan’s place in American history.

Christopher Ricks wrote the definitive book on Bob Dylan’s lyrics – Dylan’s Visions of Sin, one of my favorite books on Bob Dylan. Ricks is also the editor of the extra-large art book The Lyrics: Since 1962 containing all Bob Dylan’s lyrics with variations.

The discussion took place at The Philoctetes Center for the Multi-Disciplinary Study of the Imagination. You can watch the symposium on YouTube although it’s tediously long at 1 hour and 49 minute.

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By Stephen Pate, NJN Network

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