Friday, August 1, 2014

Favorite Song Friday: Tight Connection to My Heart

As a Bob Dylan fan, I'm not supposed to like this song. That's my understanding of the conventional wisdom, at least. It's smack dab in the middle of Bob Dylan's least beloved—and, objectively, least plain good—period, a span which did have some high points (hello, Infidels!) but an awfully lotta dross, whether it was his religious albums or sub-par live records or what have you—and there was more than a little what-have-you. And it's off Empire Burlesque, an album which is never, ever going to break into any Dylan fan's Top 10 and, really, shouldn't ever even come close, my personal fondness for it aside.

What's more, the earlier version of this song, cut for the aforementioned Infidels, and known as "Someone's Got a Hold of My Heart," is often thought to be superior, with the much more produced and rewritten "Tight Connection" considered overproduced and, well, kinda jive. What's more, the lyrics to "Tight Connection" have been criticized as being overly dependent upon quotes from film noir movies.

I don't buy any of it. Certainly Dylan's made more than a few production mistakes in his time (although considering he's released 35 studio albums, how could he not?). But I remained unswayed by the critiques, finding the song's lyrics more evocative and powerful than most of his material from the time. (I mean, a mere six years after Slow Train Coming, his lead single off his new album contains the line "I never could drink that blood and to call it wine"?) Most of all, of course, is that underneath everything is one of his catchiest ever melodies, with tasty guitar from Mick Taylor and anchored by the nearly peerless rhythm section of Sly and Robbie.

And yet, perhaps even more than that, the song contains some of my favorite singing of any Dylan on record. An oddly overlooked element of Dylan's genius is that he is an outstanding musician. His lyrics get the lion's share of the attention, and understandably, but he's an eminently capable keyboardist, a good harpist and an excellent guitarist. And as anyone who'd listened to hundreds of hours of his live performances (pre-2000s, at least) could tell you, his sense of pitch is far better than most would expect, given his notoriously unconventional timbre. Yes, he's one of the premier practitioners of sprechstimme, in which the individual notes of a melody are only lightly touched upon in a semi-speaking manner—but an opera singer will admit it's a far harder technique to pull off than you'd expect, given how prevalent it is in rock and hip-hop.

On "Tight Connection," he veers back and forth between straightforward singing and a type of acting, where his tone will become mildly skeptical or dangerously seductive or slightly baffled. The really outstanding feature of his singing, though, is how he plays with the beat, often hanging back, like a good soul or funk drummer, then occasionally rushing the beat ever so slightly before hanging back again, and then suddenly hit right on the beat (or even a series of heavily syncopated notes), to emphasize that wherever he's placing the notes are entirely by design and not just haphazard luck (or from half-assing it).

I wish there were a video up on YouTube that wasn't, well, the official video, since I don't think the Miami Vice look ol' Bob was then sporting does the song any favors, although the Springsteenesque look he's also rockin' in places, what with the blonde Tele and leather jacket and baseball cap's pretty amusing. (And, yes, I know Dylan was well known for his leather half a decade before Springsteen even landed a record deal.) And the middle female in the karaoke band is staggeringly attractive—and of course she's the one that somehow seems to sorta kinda morph into Dylan at the end? Like I said, the video's not the best way to experience the song, but needs must when the devil drives, as Dylan never said.

(For the sake of comparison, here's the original version. It's good, no question, and its singing does seem more nakedly impassioned, but more than anything the song in this form seems to be the answer to the question no one asked, which was "hey, what if Bob Dylan tried rewriting 'Sweet Jane'?")

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