Who is Jack Frost? According to Wikipedia, he is a “variant of Old Man Winter who is held responsible for frosty weather…leaving fern-like patterns on cold windows in winter.” Jack is depicted as “a sprite-like character, sometimes appearing as a sinister mischief-maker or as a hero.”
Starting in 1990, a certain Jack Frost appeared in the credits for Bob Dylan’s records, first in 1990’s Under the Red Sky. Dylan’s 1997 album Time Out of Mind was credited as being produced by Daniel Lanois “in association with Jack Frost Production.” As Recliner Notes detailed in “Can’t Wait,” Time Out of Mind was the result of a continual clashing of ideas and expectations between Dylan and Lanois. That process was less than ideal for Dylan. For his next record, 2001’s “Love and Theft,”, Jack Frost, the “sinister mischief-maker,” was the sole producer. As Dylan told the novelist Jonathan Lethem in a 2006 interview with Rolling Stone, it was time to take back control of the sound of his records:
“I felt like I’ve always produced my own records anyway, except I just had someone there in the way. I feel like nobody’s gonna know how I should sound except me anyway, nobody knows what they want out of players except me, nobody can tell a player what he’s doing wrong, nobody can find a player who can play but he’s not playing, like I can. I can do that in my sleep.”
The clear direction of Dylan’s intent is evident throughout “Love and Theft” as each song has a specific musical approach to match the point of view of the song. Dylan is having an absolute blast singing on the album, as he expresses joy, wit, and delight throughout. When I first played “Love and Theft” for my Dad (no Dylan lover), he said that Dylan sounded like Hoagy Carmichael. An apt comparison in sound but also in look as the “Love and Theft” period is when Dylan embraced a full riverboat gambler look in public, with a pencil thin mustache and period-specific hat, suits, and ties.
In an interview with Robert Hilburn for the Los Angeles Times in April 2004, Dylan casually pulled back the curtain on his songwriting process:
“I’ll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That’s the way I meditate. A lot of people will look at a crack on the wall and meditate, or count sheep or angels or money or something, and it’s a proven fact that it’ll help them relax. I don’t meditate on any of that stuff. I meditate on a song. I’ll be playing Bob Nolan’s ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds,’ for instance, in my head constantly – while I’m driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I’m talking back, but I’m not. I’m listening to the song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I’ll start writing a song.”
This process is on display throughout “Love and Theft” and exemplified by the song “Floater (Too Much to Ask).” Listen to it and then listen to “Snuggled on Your Shoulder,” a song made famous by Bing Crosby, but also recorded in 1932 by Eddy Duchin & Lew Sherwood (listen to both songs on the Spotify playlist embedded below). Dylan has appropriated the melody and main musical motif from “Snuggled on Your Shoulder (Floater)” for his song, but with an entirely different lyrical theme and content. This is consistent with how Dylan described his writing process in the quote above. Dylan is not hiding that he is inspired by old songs for his songwriting. After all, the album is called “Love and Theft.” He is stating it outright. In fact, if you look closely at the “Love and Theft” album cover, you’ll notice that the title is actually in quotes. Apparently, Dylan was inspired by Eric Lott’s book Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. Dylan appropriated the title of a book about appropriation to name an album that is filled with appropriation! And used quotation marks in the title to tell us!
In “Floater (Too Much to Ask),” Dylan is evoking a specific sense of place. He wants to tell you about this town. It’s a location with “endless days” in which activities by the river abound: “From the boat I fish for bullheads / I catch a lot, sometimes too many.”
When talking about this town, the narrator is immediately inspired to impart wisdom as a sort of twisted homily. Dylan uses this device throughout the song: sense of place –> homily. Examples include:
A summer breeze is blowing
A squall is settin’ in
Sometimes it’s just plain stupid
To get into any kind of wind
The old men ’round here, sometimes they get
On bad terms with the younger men
But old, young, age don’t carry weight
It doesn’t matter in the end
You can smell the pinewood burnin’
You can hear the school bell ring
Gotta get up near the teacher if you can
If you wanna learn anything
The narrator wants to tell you about his family as well:
Honey bees are buzzin’
Leaves begin to stir
I’m in love with my second cousin
I tell myself I could be happy forever with her
A startling revelation! Dylan continues to share learned truths in the song, but shifts the delivery method of the lesson mid-song from talking about the location to describing the narrator’s family. For example, the narrator says, “My old man, he’s like some feudal lord / Got more lives than a cat / Never seen him quarrel with my mother even once” and then imparts a crushing realization: “Things come alive or they fall flat.” Dylan delivers the last three words in a halting way, as if even saying such a thing is physically difficult for him.
There are more devastating revelations about the narrator’s family:
My grandfather was a duck trapper
He could do it with just dragnets and ropes
My grandmother could sew new dresses out of old cloth
I don’t know if they had any dreams or hopes
In addition to the continuing regret of what could have been with his second cousin, the narrator shares his grandparents’ lack of dreams. He says later in the song that he too had dreams once “to go along with all the ring dancin’ Christmas carols on all of the Christmas Eves.” For many, there is no greater sense of hope than Christmas Eve, the anticipation of the gifts that will be received all too soon. In a wonderful turn of phrase, Dylan says that these hopes have all been “buried under tobacco leaves.” It’s such a heartbreakingly beautiful and mysterious line. Is he referring to the planting of tobacco? Or, is it about the recognition of a long history of smoking too many cigarettes in too many bad situations that has erased those dreams and hopes forever?
Despite the sense of loss and regret, there is still plenty of playfulness in “Floater (Too Much to Ask),” none more so than the exchange between Romeo and Juliet:
Romeo, he said to Juliet, “You got a poor complexion
It doesn’t give your appearance a very youthful touch!”
Juliet said back to Romeo, “Why don’t you just shove off
If it bothers you so much”
Dylan is reminding us that these star-crossed lovers were only teenagers after all, and we all know that teenagers often have skin problems. And, while young lovers will be young lovers, teenagers are also known to bicker quite a bit. Dylan nails all of these ideas in four short and hilarious lines.
So much of what we see in “Floater (Too Much to Ask)” is representative of what is found throughout “Love and Theft”– humor, knowledge, biting sarcasm, regret, playfulness – all used in a variety of musical ideas, playing off of old songs to create something entirely new. It’s why “Love and Theft” is such a remarkable achievement by Dylan. At the age of 61, he is operating at the top of his game.