Monday, August 15, 2005

No 2. Mr Tambourine Man - the Byrds

The arpeggio riff on Roger McGuinn's 12-string Rickenbacker skips up, then down, the paired strings chiming like bells in the jingle-jangle morning; and the listener is plunged through the looking glass into a world that will never be quite the same again.

Bob Dylan's original version of "Mr Tambourine Man", is already something special. The four double-length verses are inspired, Keatsian flights of fancy, and there's the bewitching melody built on what the Holy Toledos' Mike Gregg called "that irresistible subdominant-dominant-tonic-subdominant chord sequence".

Dylan has commented that he has never tried to write a "repeat" of any of his songs, *except "Mr Tambourine Man"*. Even the consummate songwriter-craftsman was captivated by what emerged from his pen and his guitar in this instance.

The Byrds 1965 cover version transforms the raw material into something unique and transcendent. At 1:58 in running time, it includes only the second of the original verses, the one that starts:

Take me for a trip upon your magic swirling ship

But though the other verses were probably trimmed to fit with then-current views on the appropriate length of a pop single, they were already superfluous; everything expressed by their eloquent and poetic words is rolled up into the Byrds' not-quite two minutes of jingle-jangle guitar and choirboy harmonies. In fact, in hindsight Dylan's additional lyrics seem like footnotes to the Byrds' cover version; they go some way towards articulating what the music makes the listener feel and desire.

The recording is a serendipitous coming-together of different individual contributions. There’s Dylan’s words and music, of course. The Beach Boys' producer Terry Melcher helped give the record that Californian feeling of space and light. Extra drive was added by the session musicians who were brought in to play the bass and drums; it was felt at the time that the Byrds' rhythm section was not quite up to the task. Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and Gene Clark sang their three-part harmonies, while McGuinn played his jangling Rickenbacker, and added that unforgettable intro / outro riff.

What must it have been like to hear this song for the first time on the radio when it was released in 1965? How many people’s lives were changed by the new world of possibilities it suggested? Even twenty-five years later, when I first listened to the song properly, at the age of about fifteen, it seemed groundbreaking and transformative.

References to taking a trip and "disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind" raise the obvious question-- is the song about drugs? Yes and no. No in that it’s really about something bigger--the quest for authentic, direct experience which breaks through the quotidian and banal. It's part an expression of youthful wanderlust and part a yearning for spiritual insight or artistic inspiration.

Yes, in that this urge is as intoxicating and addictive as any drug. In the headlong rush to, as On the Road's mad hero Dean Moriarty puts it, "know time", the Tambourine Man is that ephemeral figure egging you on. I can vouch for that--I spent most of about seven or eight years hooked on pure Tambourine Man, principally motivated by a desire to chase after the indefinable sense of freedom and adventure suggested by the song. Reading Kerouac et al just confirmed my intentions, and I could make a reasonable case that pretty much every important decision I made until the age of twenty-six was affected by this single-minded romantic fever.

If Dylan's lyrics consciously evoke the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, the potent achievement of the Byrds version is that the music turns the lyrics' promise of transcendence into a glimpsed reality. The song itself becomes the Pied Piper, luring the listener off on their own directionless quest. As the twentysomething John Keats said in Ode to a Grecian Urn, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye need to know". Listening to the Byrds play Dylan on "Mr Tambourine Man", this makes perfect logical sense.

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