Have Your Cake and Eat It Too

nashville skyline coverNashville Skyline
Bob Dylan
Columbia Records, 1969

By Matt Rector

Nashville Skyline isn’t the best Bob Dylan record. That would be Blonde on Blonde, an explosive stream of cryptic, metered phrases from a young poet at the peak of his inspiration. It isn’t the record I like the best, either. That’s Blood on the Tracks, the most accurate reflection of a man’s heartbreak ever created; a corkscrew to the heart of any music fan who ever wanted something impossible. It isn’t his masterpiece. I’d argue that’s Love and Theft, a finely crafted artifact of a mature mind, without all the affectation and angst that belongs to those whose place in history is not assured while we are still living.

But the album I’ve listened to the most is Nashville Skyline. And it’s not even close. Why?

Let’s start with the much maligned, possibly contrived singing voice Dylan uses for these ten songs only.[1] It gives me goosebumps that he chose to use it. What could be more boring than yet another songwriter or poet “finding their own voice,” or creating something “authentic” and “honest”? Nashville Skyline is a story so complete that even the storyteller is a fiction, a creation subsumed in the work.

The album opens with a charmingly un-harmonic duet with Johnny Cash, Dylan covering his own song, “Girl From the North Country.” He pares the ballad down to its most essential three verses so two haggard men can grumble and howl away about as childlike a sentiment as true love. The song is two things Dylan’s music up to this point had really not been: short and simple. It heralds the coming of a 28-minute record that will give us a glimpse of an ephemeral and innocent place in Dylan’s imagination.

Following it up with the instrumental “Nashville Skyline Rag” pretty much ensures the listener that Skyline will not be expressing its concepts in rapid-fire multisyllables, but as a singular product that is itself conceptual. Also that it’s Country. Dylan and producer Bob Johnston put together an all-star cast of Nashville session musicians (which included a pre-“Devil Went Down to Georgia” Charlie Daniels on bass) and they let them really go for it on this track. The mellow but upbeat sound they achieve sold my urban teenage ears on the pleasures of bluegrass and prepared me for the coming Americana craze.

The rest of the album is comprised of brief, to-the-point love songs. Dylan touches all the essential aspects of male romantic life: yearning, jealousy, heartbreak, horniness, idealization. He does it without the intellectualism and ironic distance that had characterized most of his previous songwriting about love. The character he is playing is the kind of lover every man would like to believe he is. He is earnest, direct and unpretentious. He is brave enough to tell a woman exactly how much he needs her and lacks the self-awareness to try to cover his true desires and motivations.

“To Be Alone With You” tells the plain truth of a man’s psychology. Whatever else we do all day is just to kill time until we can get in bed with a woman. It’s a daring shot across the bow of the world of love songs and pick-up lines, laying bare the secret that most men will deny at all costs because it would send most women running out the door. Having shorn human men’s hearts of their entire pretense in the course of one 130-second jig, Dylan turns on his heel with “I Threw It All Away” and admits we’re all helpless to resist love’s power:

Love is all there is
It makes the world go ‘round
Love and only love
It can’t be denied
No matter what you think about it
You just won’t be able to do without it
Take a tip from one who’s tried.

Are you kidding me? The guy who played a pathetic teenage boy’s game of emotional manipulation in “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” who virtually invented, “It’s not you, it’s me” with “It Ain’t Me Babe,” who told us he “didn’t mean to hurt [us] so bad, [we] shouldn’t take it so personal,” is now telling us he was completely full of shit? Wow. No wonder he needed to assume a fictional identity for this.

I’m a sucker for slide guitar, so a song that features a conventional one trading off with pedal steel is going to do it for me every time. “Peggy Day” brings Side One to a big, burlesque finish and sets us up for the money shot.

“Lay Lady Lay” is one of the most covered songs of all time.[2] Some people complain about its cheesiness, and it sure is cheesy. It’s so popular and mainstream you’re supposed to pretend you’re over it before you’ve even heard it. But “Lay Lady Lay” wrecks me every time. I once recorded Nashville Skyline on Side One of a sixty-minute cassette and recorded “Lay Lady Lay” repeated nine-and-a-half times on Side Two so I could drive my car out into the country through starry summer nights with the windows down and hear it over and over again. The cowbell and the bongos are the herky-jerky heartbeat of every boy trying to talk a girl into bed for the first time. The steel guitar’s moan is the feeling of his boner desperately trying to fight its way through the crotch of his pants.

Why wait any longer for the world to begin?
You can have your cake and eat it too.
Why wait any longer for the one you love
When he’s standing right in front of you?

Those words are the words of a man so consumed by the throes of passion he believes he can will the object of his affection to want him back. “Lay Lady Lay” does something I’m not sure any other song would really do until Prince. It expresses the full force of a man’s sexuality as something wondrous and beautiful.

“One More Night” is the story of a man who has lost the woman he loves and is trying to talk himself through a single, tedious evening alone in his bed. “Tell Me That It Isn’t True” is the plea of a jealous lover (“The thought of some other man holding you tight/Hurts me all over/It doesn’t seem right.”). He doesn’t express anger or resentment, he doesn’t make threats, he doesn’t have an exit plan. He just wants her to deny the whole thing (“All of these awful things I have heard/I don’t want to believe them/All I want is your word/Darlin’ you better come through/Tell me that it isn’t true”). Pete Drake’s masterful pedal steel playing echoes through the background, accurately conveying the sickening tides that sway through the stomach of someone who has been cheated on.

“Country Pie” is a rambunctious celebration of Dylan’s love for pastoral pussy. This is about as complex a metaphor as you’ll get from the aw-shucks songwriter of Nashville Skyline. One verse of listing different types of pies and then “Saddle me up in her big white boots/Tie me on her and turn her loose/Oh me oh my/Love that country pie.” Me too Bob. Me too.

The album comes to a strong conclusion with “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You,” while letting the listener go without too much drama or any cloying histrionics. It’s the way something should end in the bucolic world of Nashville Skyline. It captures that spectacular, fatal moment in a relationship when a person chooses to give up a sense of freedom and possibility just to continue sleeping in the same bed as their lover every night. Dylan reverses the folk convention of heartbreak on the train platform by giving away his seat to “some poor boy on the street.” The album touches briefly on all the ups and downs of a relationship, but Dylan chooses to defy chronology to conclude with the best feeling we can possibly have in love: that moment when we truly feel just being with another person is better than anything else we could imagine happening. He sings jubilantly, backed by a saloon-style piano tune:

Throw my ticket out the window
Throw my suitcase out there too.
Throw my troubles out the door
I don’t need them anymore
Because tonight I’ll be staying here with you.

Nashville Skyline is an album for hopeless romantics who have grown up enough, and experienced enough, to feel their own view of the world is a little hard to swallow. Bob Dylan creates for us an imaginary place where things conform to our rules. I keep listening to it. I keep falling in love. Over and over. Again and again.

[1] In an interview with Rolling Stone’s Jann Werner shortly after releasing the album, Dylan said the new voice was a natural side effect of his decision to quit smoking.

[2] Apparently Dylan originally wrote “Lay Lady Lay” for the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack, but didn’t finish it in time. For more factoids, check out the song’s wikipedia page.

3 thoughts on “Have Your Cake and Eat It Too

  1. I’m jealous that you got to review Nashville, but this was a superb rundown of what makes this weird and beautiful album so delicious: it’s at once quintessentially Dylan, and yet not Dylan in the slightest. It isn’t an album marking a transition (Bringing It All Back Home). It isn’t a cover album (Self Portrait). It isn’t his greatest album (BoB, Desire, BotT). It could never be his worst (Empire Burlesque). Nashville Skyline is simply Dylan’s country album, the album always wanted to make.

    When I was 19 I plucked this record from the discount bin in a local super market. My roommate and I listened to it until it was like poison. The high point of the whole experience was when I one day spontaneously sang “throw my ticket out the window…” And I sounded exactly fucking like him. And we thought we felt just like him, singing those songs, fading in the sunlight.

    A beautiful album.

    And thanks for saying that Love and Theft is his masterpiece. You’re correct in this statement.

  2. I too have a strange and difficult to describe relationship with this record. I came to it after I foolishly thought that I had already understood Dylan. I had made my way through Desire and Blonde on Blonde and had those late night drunken debates over which is the greater record (Rob, I swear to fucking god, Desire is not “every chick’s favorite Bob Dylan album…”); I had spent a good, long, hard time with Freewheelin’ and Highway 61 and John Wesley Harding, trying to find all the diamonds in the rough on those would be masterpieces had any other musician made them; I’d made love to Blood on the Tracks.

    I must have been 21 or 22. I was a fucking moron.

    I thought that I knew what I needed to know about Dylan and when I purchased this record from a Record Town in the early 2000s at the Rotterdam Square Mall I did so on a lark. I was at the record store that day to buy either Talib Kweli’s I Try or Permission to Land by The Darkness or some other record that I don’t listen to anymore and I grabbed Nashville Skyline on the way to the register. I knew that I liked “Lay Lady Lay,” and I thought thought I might as well buy this CD too. Looking at the mysterious songs on the record, I figured this was some Self Portrait-esque middle finger he was giving to anyone who doubted him, anyone who thought he was too cerebral. I thought Dylan made the record to prove that he could make the dumbest kind of music he could think of. Country music. I thought the thing was a joke. Look at his picture. He is winking at the camera, playing dress up in a hat that doesn’t quite fit him.

    I wasn’t prepared for how tender, how sincere, how deep the record would go. I would drive around with the record playing in my car, only by myself and only to indulge and revel in the feelings of a new relationship developing. This joy, this fresh happiness was new to me. And beautiful and it felt good.

    When I look at the album cover now it reminds me of that feeling of earnestly handing my heart to someone, trusting them, and watching them crush it. And the record is so seductive, so disarming that the feeling of throwing my ticket out the window, my mattress too has become more intoxicating to me than any illicit substance. Entire relationships have been predicated on that single feeling.

    I had no idea there was this deep vein of love for this record. Thanks guys for making me feel less like a freak for considering the record so nourishing.

    Also, what is this weird love for Love and Theft? Am I about to have my world turned upside down again? cuz that record seems like a lesser work to me.

  3. Also, am I the only one who sees the album cover and thinks Bob’s arm is forming a play button? Is this yet another way he was ahead of his time?

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