dylan’s brain and lennon’s gobbledegooky

April 10, 2008

A VANITY FAIR blog has just taken us “inside Dylan’s brain,” cataloguing themes, references, guests, and quotes from his radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour.

Under a list of Dylan’s “one-liners,” they quote him, “I always liked songs with parentheses in the title.”

According to fellow Philadelphians at The BM Rant, John Lennon liked parentheses in his song titles, too. Their top ten list of songs with parentheses includes such Lennon songs as “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” and “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy).”

Lennon said of writing “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” “I was trying to write about an affair, so it was very gobbledegooky.” Wikipedia’s entry for the song, faithfully retaining its parentheses in the web address, explains that “Lennon acknowledged being strongly influenced by Bob Dylan during this time period, and the rather opaque lyrics of ‘Norwegian Wood’ seem to reflect this. Dylan responded with ‘4th Time Around,’ a song boasting a similar melody, subject matter and lyrical delivery. Rock journalists and even Lennon himself felt it to be a rather pointed parody of ‘Wood’ [note how the song title gets shorter and shorter, forgetting its parentheses, as the discussion proceeds] [oh, but here come new parentheses:] (some even went as far as to think the song’s closing line – ‘And I, I never took much/I never asked for your crutch/Now don’t ask for mine’ – was directed toward Lennon), though Lennon later told his biographer that he considered Dylan’s effort to be more a playful homage.”

In an outtake from Dylan’s Eat the Document, Lennon and Dylan, drunk or stoned, have a conversation in the back of a cab. The transcription of the outtake opens with Dylan, in parentheses, “(peering out of a rainy window as the great car rumbles down the road).” Six minutes into the scene, Lennon asks Dylan, “Do you know Ralph Donner? He’s another great one.” Dylan replies, “No, I only know the lesser known ones.”

This conversation, like Theme Time Radio Hour, also opens a window into “Dylan’s brain.” His affinity for songs with parentheses in their titles seems similar to his comment here, filmed decades earlier, about knowing the lesser over the greater. Parentheses place the lesser alongside the greater.

The BM Rant’s top ten doesn’t include any Dylan titles. He definitely has some good ones, though. My favorite is “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” There’s no mention of the title’s parenthetical phrase in the song itself. Maybe he owns up to this trick in the song when he directs us to not “fear if you hear/A foreign sound to your ear/It’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing.” The “bleeding” in the title is abandoned for “sighing”–a “foreign sound” the title doesn’t lead us to expect. But the deserted phrase’s bitter, sarcastic sentiment bleeds through the disillusionment he sings about, parenthetically.

(The video can now be found here: http://www.timsah.com/Bob-Dylan-Its-Alright-Ma-Im-Only-Bleeding/Z0TrQVD1emX.)

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One Response to “dylan’s brain and lennon’s gobbledegooky”

  1. N said

    singing parentheses and/vs. singing parenthetically. to what extent does it depend on supplementary texts? and inscriptions in textual media… importance of lyric transcriptions? and the internet.

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