Whoever first observed the suggestive links between the last song on Album X and the material on Album Y, is our inspiration today. Modern Times ended with Ain’t Talkin’ that epic of restlessness and restraint. No stopping, and no invitations to join him on his journey unless you’re already one of the loyal and much-loved companions to whom he has to explain nothing. He’s vagrant and lonely and all-seeing. Do not ask him for explanations and now he’s out of sight.
On Together Through Life, the vagrant of Ain’t Talkin’ is now saying, “Listen to me.” In My Wife’s Hometown, the old blowhard claims he just wants to hear the drummer’s cymbal ringing. But no drummer could drown out the singer’s great growling braggadocio: he married one goddamned witch and boy are we going to hear about it. Not even so much hear about her, as hear what kind of guy it takes to hold on to her. If we don’t get that the song’s a big cojones-full boast, the cackles at the end tell us everything we need to know. And we’ve forgotten all about the drummer by then.
Someone else grabs you by the sleeve–“you’re going to Houston? I know all about Houston, man, let me tell you. You better walk right and watch out…I know all about it.” And now that he’s got our attention, we travel all over Texas with him, without leaving our seat. Memories so sharp they feel like right here and now, for the singer and for you. It feels like he’s already telling more than he should about Mary Ann and Lucy and Nancy. (Except that it’s Betsy, isn’t it. I’ve heard “Nancy” all along on the album,as whoever compiled the lyrics link I’ve cited at the bottom of this post– then I clearly heard “Betsy” on the Dublin performance, and now I hear Betsy all the time. Odd when that happens.) . Then he’s gone, stopped caring for the moment what happens to me in Houston. He’s traveling on in his own past, but still grabbing someone’s sleeve–Mister Policeman, help me find this girl. I see the cop smiling, shaking his head, and then the singer brings his memories, all those barrooms, to us again: help me find all that stuff, and help me put my tears in a bottle once and for all. Then he collects himself, tells us again what to do if we ever go to Houston. All those shifts from past to present are addresses, appeals.
“I’m not that far away,” he growls rather appealingly to the woman who’s shakin and shakin for him. Keep it up, honey, he’s not going to stop watching. But you know, his attention wanders just a little, and who does he see, that scandalous old clown, Judge Simpson–in the midst of his contagious bluesy old raunch, he’s still a man of mature years shocked by the corruptions of his neighbors. Even lust can’t quite shut down his field of vision, and we get the treat of Bob Dylan gossiping to us, somehow without the bluesy raunch letting up for a moment–all one moment to him, and to us. What else are you going to tell us?
“I feel a change comin’on.” Change, movement, travel, transience, restlessness–we’re used to these principles in Dylan’s songs. Ain’t Talkin’ warned us that he’s not going to stop for us, not going to turn and face us, we can overhear him for as long as we can keep up, but don’t ask for more than that. But I Feel A Change Comin’ On invites us in to his moment of change. He doesn’t tell us what the change is. It’s not for us to know what’s coming next. But he’s comfortable and easy in making the listener the companion of his moment of change. “We strive for the same old ends.” “I just can’t wait for us to become friends.” This just isn’t the same as the exclusive fellowship limited to those who “share my code,” and are loved insofar as they are loyal. In the moment of change, a stranger may become a friend.
And now that he’s made us companions, now that we know he’s talking to us, he’ll tell us what he really knows. It’s all good. The widow’s cry. The orphan’s plea. Wouldn’t change it. If I could. How I wish every 25 year old in Williamsburg who thinks wearing a Spiro Agnew t-shirt is *ironic* would listen to this song fourteen times until he recognizes what keen and scathing wisdom looks like to grownups. Reviewers keep referring to this song as “sarcastic” but there’s a deep dark wit at work here that can’t be covered by sarcasm. The song could be a most excellent example of Dylan flattering his listener’s intelligence, getting across that he knows we’ll find that deep dark wit and laugh right with him.
Here’s a link to an early transcription of lyrics, and before you start finding everything that you don’t hear, raise a glass to whoever went to this trouble :http://expectingrain.com/dok/div/ttl_lyrics.pdf