In 1966, Dylan was in the midst of his insane tour with The Hawks, welcomed as heroes in some cities, while defiantly fighting off boos in others. Sometimes they would have to deal with both at the same time in the same city. Concurrently, Dylan was attempting to record his follow up album to Highway 61 Revisited. He had tried recording with The Hawks in New York City, but had walked away with mixed results. His producer Bob Johnston suggested Nashville as an alternative. So with two members of his New York crew in tow – guitarist Robbie Robertson and keyboard player Al Kooper – recorded Blonde on Blonde with the first call of Nashville recording musicians. (Listen to season two of Tyler Mahan Coe’s podcast Cocaine & Rhinestones for a full history of the Nashville sound and the A-team of musicians who recorded some of the biggest hits in pop and country during the 60s in Nashville.)
Despite the professional musicians on hand who were used to various musical styles and situations, most of them said that working with Dylan on Blonde on Blonde was completely different from anything they had experienced before. (This 2007 piece by Sean Wilentz for Oxford American is filled with such testimonies.) “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” exemplifies the strange recording experience for the Nashville pros.
It’s a nine-verse, seven minute epic starting with words: “Oh, the ragman draws circles / Up and down the block / I’d ask him what the matter was / But I know that he don’t talk.” This is definitely not a session with, say, Roger Miller.
“Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” took multiple takes to record; a three hour session starting at 4 A.M. to capture what was in Dylan’s head. The song starts with a harmonica swirl and off they go with a chicken scratch guitar throughout, organ fills alternating between sounding like the carnival and a horror film, and the Nashville A-list rhythm section staying in pocket for the entire seven minutes. After singing all the verses, Dylan’s harmonica returns to signal the end, the music slows down, all the instruments combine to note the exhaustion and satisfaction of finalizing a work like “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.”
In the middle of Dylan’s 1966 madness, Robert Shelton interviewed him, which was eventually included in Shelton’s 1986 book No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan. Dylan told Shelton:
“A concert tour like this has almost killed me…It really drove me out of my mind….It takes a lot of medicine to keep up this pace.”
Many have speculated on the drugs that Dylan was taking to maintain his survival and “keep up with this pace.” I’m not going to further speculate here, but the theme of medicine was certainly on Dylan’s mind and medicinal references crept into his work in this period. “Temporary Like Achilles” was another song off of Blonde on Blonde. An early version of the song was titled “Medicine Sunday.”
The idea of medicine is central to “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” as seen in the seventh verse:
Now the rainman gave me two cures
Then he said, “Jump right in”
The one was Texas medicine
The other was just railroad gin
An’ like a fool I mixed them
An’ it strangled up my mind
An’ now people just get uglier
An’ I have no sense of time
The narrator is relying on a rainman to provide two different “cures” for what ails him. Those cures are “Texas medicine” and “railroad gin.” The rainman is certainly a questionable source as he calls for no hesitation on the part of the narrator: go on, mix them, jump in feet first, no going back! The narrator knows it is foolhardy to mix the cures and everything is out of place, but does it anyway, resulting in a strangled brain, a warped, ugly perspective of people, and an out-of-time existence. But there is a chicken-and-egg question at play here. In the song, Dylan details the consequences of mixing medicines, which sound like the nightmare existence of 1966 for Dylan. But remove the medicine from consideration. Would the nightmare still be there? The answer to that question hangs over the entire song in the form of another question: is this really the end? The state of being perpetually stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues is one in which there is no escape. No medicine will deliver a cure for this existence.
The previous post about “Crash on the Levee” detailed the “oh mama” connection between that song and “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” In ”Crash on the Levee,” the narrator is crying “oh mama” as part of playful sparring with a partner. Here, it sounds like a cry from beyond.
Another interesting connection between the two songs is Dylan drawing inspiration from songs included in the Anthology of American Folk Music. For “Crash on the Levee”, it was Rabbit Brown’s “James Alley Blues;” for “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” Dylan is inspired by the song “I Wish I Was in a Mole in the Ground” by Western North Carolina lawyer, songcatcher, and performer Bascom Lamar Lunsford:
Oh, I don’t like a railroad man
No, I don’t like a railroad man
If I’s a railroad man they’ll kill you when he can
Drink up your blood like wine
In “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” Dylan sings:
Mona tried to tell me
To stay away from the train line
She said that all the railroad men
Just drink up your blood like wine
Dylan obviously appropriates the words directly from Lunsford. The image of vampire railroad workers gorging on the blood of innocents is essential for Dylan to convey the truly hellish nature of the Mobile/Memphis blues reality. The narrator goes on to tell Mona: “Oh, I didn’t know that / But then again, there’s only one I’ve met.” The narrator tells Mona that he’s not denying her truth of what she knows about railroad men, but that his experience with one from that particular profession was equally bad. He explains: “An’ he just smoked my eyelids / An’ punched my cigarette.” In “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” everything is backward – up is down, black is white, eyelids are smoked, cigarettes are punched – and none of the ramifications are good.
Photo by: Scott Bunn