TWEEDLE DEE & TWEEDLE DUM
When the record fades up, the party has already started. This is literally nonsense, two characters from Lewis Carroll's classic of that genre Alice in Wonderland. But as with Carroll, the sinister is never far away. “Two big bags of dead man's bones'” took on an even more horrific meaning on the day of release. As in any fable, the two warring twins could be anyone, Bush and AI Gore, two sides Of Dylan's own psyche, even born again Christianity and fundamentalist Islam that, after aII both do come from the same mother's knee. Elvis sang a piece of unrelated fluff called Tweedle Dee but took it straight, not with the biting irony Dylan invests here. Musically, it's like Highway 61 Revisited sung and played by half-wits. Nothing is accidental on this album, least of aII the mention Of A Streetcar Named Desire. Dylan said of Tennessee Williams, author of that sultry, southern epic, “A few years back he died in New York City in a hotel room all by himself. And nobody found him until the next day. He was there because he couldn't get a job”.
For those who have ventured to the other side of the looking glass while listening to a Dylan song, Tweedle Dee And Tweedle Dum may be just the right track to bring them back over here. This driving, bleaky menacing From A Buick 6-style rocker which opened Dylan’s Love And Theft collection in Highway 61 Revisited fashion also sounds as if it fell between the cracks of Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music, took a ride on Elvis Presley’s Mystery Train, and landed in Dylan’s lap. Like The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest or Tweeter And The Monkey Man, this tousled, hard-hoodoo shuffle is a dense fable that uses nursery-rhyme structures to relate its morally vague tale of violence and betrayal. And it is chock-full of the type of crazy Zen wisdom and mayhem that made Dylan songs like this famous long ago – Dee and Dum dominate centre-stage with their “two big bags of dead man’s bones” and “brains in a pot, beginning to boil”.
Writing in Guitar World Acoustic magazine, Isaiah Trost observed, “The song recounts a long – very long – yet fast-moving and very odd conversation between the title protagonists made famous in Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland. While the lyrics, a barrage of vivid images, old aphorisms and non-sequiturs, are Dylanesquely obscure, the song is expressively sung and carried along by the crunchy acoustic rhythm playing and booming bass and drums.”
Dylan shed only a bit of oblique light on his intentions with Tweedle Dee And Tweedle Dum when he told Edna Gunderson of USA Today that “evil might not be coming your way as a monstrous brute or the gun-toting devilish ghetto gangster. It is the bookish-looking guy in the wire-rimmed glasses who might not be entirely harmless.” Perhaps that is why he chose to use the song with its unsavoury duo conveying the modern face of wickedness, in his first-ever television advertisement.
In Bandits, a 2001 film starring Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton, Tweedle Dee And Tweedle Dum is used in the opening sequence and also in a later scene.
Dylan began performing Tweedle Dee And Tweedle Dum at his fall 2001 concerts in support of Love And Theft. He kept the song in fairly heavy rotation and, for a period immediately following Election Night 2002, established it as a set-opening warning, signalling, perhaps, his feelings about how the two-party political system had handled affairs. A year later, its appearance as his show-openers continued, suggesting and begging comparison to the two-headed hydra dominating the media at that moment – George W Bush and Saddam Hussein.
Published lyrics: Lyrics 04.
Known studio recordings: Clinton Recording Studios, New York City, 8 May 2001.[L+T – tk.5]
First known performance: Spokane Arena WA, 5 October 2001
TWEEDLE DEE & TWEEDLE DUM
Published lyrics: Lyrics 04.
Known studio recordings: Clinton Recording Studios, New York City, 8-9 May 2001 – 9 takes.[L+T – tk.9]
First known performance: Spokane Arena WA, 5 October 2001
HONEST WITH ME
Published lyrics: Lyrics 04.
Known studio recordings: Clinton Recording Studios, New York City, 9-10 May 2001 – 6 takes.[L+T – tk.6]
First known performance: Spokane Arena WA, 5 October 2001.
“I knew after [Time Out of Mind] that when and if I ever committed myself to making another record, I didn't want to get caught short without uptempo songs. A lot of my songs are slow ballads. I can gut-wrench a lot out of them. But if you put a lot of them on a record, they'll fade into one another. I blueprinted it this time to make sure I didn't get caught without uptempo songs.” Rome press conference, 23 July 2001
That blueprint involved recording two derivative, uptempo electric blues and a soft-shoe shuffle at the start of the sessions, and building an album around them. On days one to three, Dylan recorded Summer Days, Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum and Honest With Me, in that order. This was because Love And Theft was his way of addressing unfinished business, revealing the other side of the coin Lanois had flipped on his behalf. It was also a return to recording the way he had back in the early-1980s, when the whole tide of technology had been massing its forces against him.
Indeed, Love And Theft shares a lot with the much-maligned Shot Of Love, not least Dylan's decision to use his touring band to make an album for the first time since those Rundown days. This time, though, he was looking to cut a track a day – literally. As engineer Chris Shaw relates: “There's 12 songs on Love And Theft, and we did 12 songs in 12 days, completed. Then we spent another ten days mixing it – 85% of the sound of that record is the band spilling into Bob's mike, because he'd sing live in the room with the band – without headphones. Bob wanted to get the live sound of the band he had at the time. Just get the whole band in the room playing.”
Shaw, a Sony in-house engineer whose first Dylan session had been Things Have Changed in July 1999, was an analogue-friendly antithesis of Lanois – an answer to Dylan's prayers. He even got complimented by the Album-Vet, who told European journalists two months later, “On my last record, they put on all kinds of effects and overdubs afterwards, to make me sound like the way I do anyway. But on this record, we had a young engineer who knew exactly what to do. He got the point. When you have an absolutely clear view of the arrangements you want, there is really nothing to produce.”
Crucially, Dylan had decided to return to recording live, with only the most marginal of safety nets. For the musicians, the option to redo parts did not really exist – not just because of technological restraints, but because Dylan had finally decided “soloing is not a big part of my records. Nobody buys them to hear solos. What I try to do is to make sure that the instrumental sections are dynamic and are extensions of the overall feeling of the song.”
The Love And Theft musicians – already versed in the “stratagems, codes and stability” Dylan brought to songs in concert – knew that they should concentrate on “the overall feeling of the song”, and responded accordingly. Unfortunately, the one aspect of the sound that was often at odds with “the overall feeling of the song” was Dylan's own voice. Part of the problem was that, rather than replicating the working practice of Shot Of Love, recorded when he was refreshed and raring to go, he was making the same mistake he had with that album's predecessor, Saved, coming straight off the road and recording an album.
After reminding himself of that inimitable Memphis musical stew at the Beale Street Music Festival on 6 May 2001, he arrived back in New York two days later to record Summer Days with a voice already in tatters from four decades of trying to emulate his musical idols, too many years on the unending road and too few days' respite from his nightly ritual. Even the young engineer realized the vocals could present a problem, incautiously suggesting to Uncut in November 2008 that there were a number of alternate takes recorded at these sessions where “the vocal wasn't up to par, because Bob was just kind of still going through it”. I don't know about the alternate takes, but the released takes of these three songs in particular feature some of the most desultory vocals the man had ever committed to tape.
Yet the songs were certainly worked on. Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum was subjected to some nine takes across two sessions, at least one of which (take four) topped six minutes; and even Honest With Me, as rudimentary as a roll in the hay, took some seven takes to shed a minute and a half from its seven-minute self (the first two - marked “r.o.” on the reel – were apparently rolled over, though both were complete. Hopefully these were preserved on the “live” two-track DAT which was again running at the sessions), before they found a “new drum groove” and stuck with it.
These two electric blues and the ersatz jazz of Summer Days not only established a working pattern; they betrayed a methodology of appropriation that seeped into the very marrow of these songs, starting With the titles themselves (almost every song on the album was lifted from the lexicon of song and rhyme; the one exception was Floater, whose working title Too Much To Ask had a more literary source). Summer Days became the first Charley Patton reference on the album, being doubtless named after Patton's Some Summer Day; while Honest With Me was bound to remind most listeners of Jimmy Reed's irresistible Honest I Do. As for Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, it was the second time in 11 years that Dylan opened an album with a song title taken from a nursery rhyme, this one dating back to at least 1720, and famously quoted in Lewis Carroll's Through The Looking Glass:
“Tweedledum and Tweedledee
Agreed to have a battle;
For Tweedledum said Tweedledee
Had spoiled his nice new rattle.
Just then flew down a monstrous crow,
As black as a tar-barrel;
Which frightened both the heroes so,
They quite forgot their quarrel.”
Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, though it was recorded second, became the song chosen as an introduction to all that was to come. Fittingly, it displayed a working method short on inspiration and long on derivation. Dylan, though, was not about to become an apologist for his methodology. His way of describing this new way of composing to Robert Hilburn, from a fascinating 2004 conversation on songwriting, all but implied he was communing with the spirits of the great American songwriters, in the same way Elizabethan author George Chapman liked to commune with the spirit of Homer when translating his work into English:
“I'm not a melodist. My songs are either based on old Protestant hymns or Carter Family songs or variations of the blues form. I'll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That's the way I meditate. People will think they are talking to me and I'm talking back, but I'm not. I'm listening to the song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I'll start writing a song.”
In the case of Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, his source was not any old Protestant hymn. It was a minor 1950s hit for the pop duo Johnnie & Jack, entitled Uncle John's Bongos; Dylan doing very little (if anything) to disguise his debt. Nor did his knowledge of the duo extend to this song alone. Within a month of these sessions he would be opening the live set with their somewhat more memorable Hummingbird. Here, he did not so much use Johnnie & Jack's 45 “as [a] departure point, that I change or dismantle from the inside”, as graft his own words onto what was little more than a novelty song.
Even those words were no longer wholly his own unique spin on the collective canon of American song. As he put it to the assembled press in Rome that July, “I take notes. I retrieve them. I pull ideas together. I don't really do any writing. I don't sit down to write”, which is a remarkably direct depiction of what he was now doing in the name of (his) art. In Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, there were lines which sounded like nothing that ever came from the man's pen. And after the hubbub surrounding his debts to movie dialogue in Seeing The Real You At Last, he must surely have known his appropriations would not stay long below fans' radar.
And so it proved. The line, “Well, a childish dream is a deathless creed” – which always sounded like something lifted from a book of proverbs – turned out to be a direct quote from the American civil war poet Henry Timrod. Nor would it be the only time he felt like lifting a line or two from Timrod's poesy. At least the other allusion in Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum connected Timrod's quintessentially 19th-century imagery to his darker depiction of these malevolent twins. Dylan describes how:
“they walk among the stately trees / They know the secrets of the breeze”,
whereas Timrod had written of
“the stately trees / shut within themselves / where lay fettered all the secrets of the breeze”.
Timrod continued to exercise an influence on this amateur historian of civil war rhetoric throughout this album and the next, finally prompting a 2006 article in the New York Times that questioned Dylan's motives for “disguising” any such debt to the lesser (known) visionary.
At least this unremittingly unpleasant song lives up to Dylan's claim, to Mikal Gilmore, that the songs on the album “deal with what many of my songs deal with – which is business, politics and war. It's not like the songs were written by the man about town pretending to be happy.” Summer Days also attempts to fuse the literary and the vernacular, but in such a stilted way that it leaves this listener cold. In keeping with the other song titles on Love And Theft, there is no obvious debt – save the title – to Patton's song. Rather, the melody sounds like a generic jitterbug rag-tune, to which Dylan set this collage of influences.
From the written page he has taken at least a couple of the threads which tie the song together. One, in verse five, constitutes the first of a dozen or so references seemingly lifted fromjohn Bester's English translation of Japanese author Junichi Saga's Confessions Of A Yakuza, a first-hand account of Japanese gangs. Where Saga asks, “D'you think I could call myself a yakuza if I couldn't stand up to some old businessman?” Dylan wonders, “What good are you anyway, if you can't stand up to some old businessman?” As to what excited Dylan so about Saga's saga, a close read of Bester's translation brings no illumination.
Dylan's other debt, stretched to an outlandish length to preserve the integrity of the allusion, comes from someone he had been referencing since at least 1971, F Scott Fitzgerald, and his most celebrated work, The Great Gatsby. The relevant section – which probably also influenced Floater (Too Much To Ask) – warrants reproducing as is: ““You can't repeat the past.” “Can't repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!” He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach.”
If the spirit of Fitzgerald's novel defined an age which provides the setting for Summer Days, Floater (Too Much To Ask) and Moonlight, Dylan is hoping said spirit can still inform the modern world. Hence, the allusions found in Summer Days to songs from said “golden age” like Cotton-Eye Joe, Hopped Up Mustang and, last but by no means least, the traditional Twenty One Years, a song he recorded in St Paul in 1960 and at the World Gone Wrong sessions in 1993 (and from which he took the line, “I'm counting on you, babe, to give me a break”). Summer Days demonstrated that Dylan was now prepared to let such memorial impressions now crowd in.
The problem was that his editorial instincts were in almost as bad a state of disrepair as his voice. Honest With Me, a gutbucket rhythm and blues tune that had seemingly just blown in from Chicago, “the city that never sleeps” (itself a reference to a 1953 noir film that was set in Chicago), could have been an honest slice of downhome goodness on any album not so weighed down by the musically generic. But having restricted the permissible parameters of what his backing musicians could interject, Dylan decided he could go on as long as he liked – as if back in Nashville, and this the winter of 1966.
Honest With Me might have begun life as a nice little protestation against a (specific) woman's perfidy (“You'd be honest with me, if only you knew my feeling for you”), but by the time Dylan recut it on 10 May 2001 – having produced two takes at the previous day's session that were, according to the tape notes, “rockin' pretty good” and “more in the pocket” – he was obliged to resort to tradition in order to pad out the five six-line verses and provide him with the odd couplet (“I'm not sorry for nothing I've done / I'm glad I fought, I only wish we'd won,” coming from the civil war song, I’m A Good Ol' Rebel).
According to Augie Meyers – who also witnessed the tortuous Time Out Of Mind sessions – Dylan was once again reworking lyrics at the sessions themselves, but this time he was not editing; he was adding. “[Dylan would] fool around for a while with a song, and then we'd cut it. And he'd say “I think I'm gonna write a couple more verses,” sit down and write five more verses. Each verse had six or eight lines. It's complicated stuff, and he was doing it right there.”
The resultant songs were often without beginning or end, and betrayed a general inconsistency of tone. Hence, perhaps, why so many of these songs – particularly the uptempo ones – worked better in performance when Dylan could slur lesser lines and prune inferior verses, the words becoming blurred by the immediacy of the moment. These three songs certainly appealed to the singer on the road, Dylan racking up a staggering 661 performances of Summer Days (and 360 and 481 of the other two, respectively), by the end of 2008. By the end of the 10 May 2001 session, he had already ensured there was no danger of “get[ting] caught without uptempo songs”.