Martin Pengelly in New York
I can survive, I can endure
I don’t even think about her
Most of the time
Christopher Hitchens, a finer writer than me, called Most Of The Time by Bob Dylan, a finer writer than him, ‘one of the most vertiginous, knife-edge accounts of a post-love trauma ever penned’.
‘You should only listen to the song,’ he wrote, ‘if you are not currently trying to persuade yourself that it is all over and that you are all over it.’
Hitchens was right, but as so often (Bush, Iraq, oral sex), he was also wrong. I’m writing about the acoustic version of Most Of The Time, which is on Tell Tale Signs, a bootleg released in 2008, four years after Hitchens filed his piece. He was likely writing about the album version (found at the bottom of this page), which is on Oh Mercy from 1989, produced to death with echo and dated drum effects by the never-knowingly underdone Daniel Lanois. So much for Hitchens.
So much for the acoustic Most Of The Time. I love it for the way it is constructed, simple repetitions of a theme building a lament sung by a mature, pre-death rattle Dylan over driving guitar, in between bursts of raspy harmonica. I love it because it is Dylan unfiltered, like Blind Willie McTell or Highlands a resonant echo of his youthful glory.
More than that, though, I love Most Of The Time more for reasons that are fearfully trite and autobiographical. Precisely, in other words, what Hitchens was writing about.
I can handle what I stumble upon
I don’t even notice she’s gone
Most of the time
I first heard those lines when I was trying to persuade myself that it was all over and I was all over it. The it in question, brief and fleeting, had ended five years before. But I’m only human, forever prey to plaintive, painful, pointless hope. Dylan hit me like a train.
I moved on. Ten years later, I am writing this while bouncing a baby, my third, in her chair. My wife is out, my other two girls are at school.
Most of the time, my head is on straight
Most of the time, I’m strong enough not to hate
Only, every now and then I’m not. If Most Of The Time comes up on my phone on the way to work, which is in a newsroom at the tip of Manhattan, I’m immediately back in dark days in Balham, when I lived in a damp flat above a barbershop and listened to Most Of The Time on loop.
Most of the time, I smile ruefully, give myself a mental slap and carry on. Some of the time, I wonder how Most Of The Time would hit me if I were somehow now to lose my wife and children, so hopelessly, helplessly adored.
Dylan’s song works its insidious art that way, in the future conditional, just as in the present and past. It is omni-applicable. But that quickly grows too confusing, not to say too alarming, so most of the time I think instead of the song’s superbly perfect imperfection.
Like most Dylan songs, Most of the Time is simple and complex both. Most of the lines scan. Some don’t, quite. He jams words in, never quite wrecking the thing, keeping it afloat on its remorseless, beautiful tune. Some of the time he seems to choose rhymes for convenience. Most of the time, his rhymes are fitting and lethal. Each time, he comes back to his pitiless refrain. His head is on straight. Most of the time.
Most of the time, she ain’t even in my mind
I wouldn’t know her if I saw her
She’s that far behind
Most Of The Time is about human frailty. It is not perfect itself. No great song is. On the version Lanois got at, the producer aims for perfection, layering effects to achieve a blip of corporate nothing. Oh, mercy. Wrong. Dylan’s acoustic take is alive, a work in progress, glorious, frustrating, tantalising.
This, essentially, is why I more often listen to jazz. In his electric years, Miles Davis had chaos and jumble and blasts of sheer beauty and missed notes and swampy funk and tuneless horror and back again to beauty, each take different, none of them perfect. In the words of another great poet of the 60s – Uncle Monty – there can be no true beauty without decay.
Hitchens contended that Dylan aimed high, writing lyrics to match John Donne. Lay Lady Lay, he wrote, is counterpart to To His Mistress Going to Bed:
His clothes are dirty but his hands are clean
And you're the best thing that he's ever seen
Like the Nobel prize committee, Hitchens was right.
I can smile in the face of mankind
Don’t even remember what her lips felt like on mine
Most of the time.