Chimes of Freedom was, I think, the first Dylan song that I really made an effort to transcribe. This was before the days of the Internet and in my case also before the days of Lyrics, so if I wanted the words on paper, I had to write them out myself.
Which I wanted, and which I did.
I was spellbound by those words. The layer upon layer of different meanings connected to different sensual experiences: the thunder storm, the lightning, the sounds, the “we”, which is not explained in the song, but I imagined a loving couple, on their way home from a date, to . . ., well, you know – all these and more, working together, flowing in and out of each other and each other’s natural domains, lightning itself evoking sounds, not by laws of physics, through its companion, the thunder, but by laws of association.
And all this channeled into Freedom, even giving that flashing sound a political or at least social dimension. No wonder the post-pubescent me had to love it.
And I had to see it on paper, to savour it, possibly also to understand the bits that escaped me in their sounding form. I only had it on vinyl (of course, this was back in those days . . .), and it’s only owing to my quick (and illegible, to anyone but me) handwriting that there aren’t more scratches and dents in that track. Somehow, I managed to get through it, and even solve some of the textual mysteries.
For this and other reasons, I have quite a special affection for the album version. I don’t know if it is because of this, or because Dylan has never really done it better, but I’ve never been quite satisfied with his live versions. They always leave me cold, don’t do it for me, and the result of having listened to all these versions that leave me cold, has been that the song itself has lost some of its attraction.
Then came No Direction Home. I won’t claim that this is the best version ever – it probably isn’t. The singing is the whining, slightly tense, 1964 voice – not his best year. I’ve even heard the track before, without any noticeable effect.
But this time, somehow, it worked.
I can’t explain why – probably a combination of circumstances (I was listening on headphones, walking around in our local grocery store, looking for some aubergines and some washing powder), and the thing that caught me was something as insignificant as the guitar playing between the verses.
It goes something like this:
G : . . : . . : . |-3---3---3---|-3---3---3---|-3---3---3---| |-0---0---0---|-0---0---0---|-0---0---0---| |-0---0---0---|-0---0---0---|-0---0---0---| etc. |-0---0---0---|-0---0---0---|-0---0---0---| |-2---2---2---|-2---2---2---|-2---2---2---| |-3---3---3---|-3---3---3---|-3---3---3---|
Nothing much, and yet…
At first, the performance disturbed me. Especially two of the between-verses passages, where he keeps strumming this one G major chord abnormally long. I thought, “Damn, he has forgotten the lyrics.” It has happened before. But this time, “phew”, he managed to get back on track again. Until next verse, same thing again, even longer this time. But both times, the following verse with all its intricate images and assonances followed without any hint of a problem, so relieved by this I ended up listening to the sheer sound of the guitar: never have I heard a more perfectly ringing, shimmering tone from Dylan’s hand. It’s not that it’s simple word-painting or anything – that would have been trite; they don’t sound like church-bells, those guitar chords – especially not the kind which are caused by lightning. But they chime alright.
And I started wondering, if he hadn’t forgotten the lyrics, perhaps there was a reason he did it like this? Playing the waiting-game like that – unless one believes it’s just a mistake, and all one can think of is how painfully embarrassing this is – it forces one to notice that which is going on in place of that one expected but which is not. And what goes on here, is sound – simply sound. “Only silence is more beautiful.”