Love Sick

In the late fall months of 1997, magazines everywhere were insisting: no really, Bob Dylan is back! The irony in this statement is that not only had Dylan not gone anywhere, he had actually been everywhere. Over the course of the 90s for the so-called Never Ending Tour, he had toured constantly at small venues and state fairs in every community that had a stage. The combination of a health scare in spring of 1997 along with the release of Time Out of Mind sparked the small wildfire of media coverage. 

It was hard not to be skeptical of these claims. It had been four years since Dylan had released World Gone Wrong, his second straight release of folk and blues covers, and seven years since the underwhelming Under the Red Sky, his last album of original material. Seven years is a long time in the recording industry resulting in the prodigal old man headlines. At that time, I was living in Los Angeles, working for near-minimum wage, and had to be extremely selective when buying music. Reading the critical praise in magazines I wasn’t buying but reading on the newsstands, the only way to know for sure about Time Out of Mind was to listen to it myself. But in the days before satellite radio and streaming, Dylan’s latest release was not being played on the radio, despite what Rolling Stone and Uncut were saying. The only option to sample the album was the late 1990s phenomenon of the CD listening station. At Borders and other media stores across the country, you could find a tower with a pair of headphones that featured an album on display. You would put on the headphones, press a large red button or something, and wait for the CD player to start playing.

The first sound heard on “Love Sick,” the first song on Time Out of Mind, is a faint, wispy turbulence, perhaps from a guitar or a keyboard. The next sound is of someone setting the rhythm. It’s not a spoken countdown, rather a tapping. Suddenly the music starts. An organ is playing. It’s an organ straight out of a horror movie; not a John Carpenter keyboard sound from one of his early horror movies such as the theme from Halloween, but rather an organ sound from a 1950s horror movie. Better yet, the organ could be the theme song of a scary radio show from the 1940s, such as Inner Sanctum:

The organ is playing straight quarter notes. Fingers are jabbing at the keys to create this music, matching the creepy tapping of the initial countdown. “I’m walking,” Dylan sings, “through streets that are dead.” We finally hear Dylan’s voice. It’s distorted. Time Out of Mind’s producer Daniel Lanois was quoted in Michael Gray’s The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia as saying: “We treated the voice almost like a harmonica when you over-drive it through a small guitar amplifier.” Putting aside the studio effects, Dylan’s voice is different. He’s not singing through his nose. It’s coming from deeper in his body, sounding closer to his speaking voice.

Those first words by Dylan — “I’m walking through streets that are dead” — confirm that we are indeed in a kind of horror movie with the lyrical content. Musically, the minor key horror movie death march continues, barely pushed along by the tap-tap-tap tapping of the percussion. Acoustic guitars enter, playing minor key blues riffs before a second keyboard is heard on top of the single note jabs of the original horror movie organ. The second keyboard player is inserting jazzy runs with an entirely different sound, yet still matching the ghostly feel. Also, steel guitars provide doom-laden swirls. At one point, Dylan stops singing in what would be a chance for one player to step forward and take a prominent solo. Instead, three different instruments play lead parts. Somehow, this works. The instrumentation on “Love Sick” flows in and out and around Dylan’s singing as if it is the wind. There’s also a depth of field to the sound, as if some of the instruments are further away from the listener or the sound of the instrument is echoing off of a distant mountain.

The tension-filled sessions for Time Out of Mind were explored earlier on Recliner Notes, with Lanois bringing in a team of players and Dylan filling out the array of musicians with his own crew. One of Dylan’s choices was famed music producer and keyboard player Jim Dickinson, who is playing the second keyboard sound that enters “Love Sick.” (Dickinson is quoted extensively in the “Can’t Wait” and “Highlands” posts on Recliner Notes.) The first horror movie organ that is heard throughout the song is played by Augie Meyers. Meyers is best known for his long-standing collaboration with Doug Sahm and their many musical partnerships include the Sir Douglas Quintet and the Texas Tornados. Meyers talked about his relationship with Dylan to Damien Love for Uncut in 2008:

“I met Bob Dylan way back in 1964. Me and Doug Sahm, we had the Quintet in New York. And Bob always liked the Sir Douglas Quintet. We were one of his bands. That’s when we became friends. When he called me to play on the albums, he said, ‘Hey, bring your magic Vox,’ that’s what he called my Vox organ.”

The magic Vox is the horror movie organ in “Love Sick.” It can be heard in non-horror movie settings in the original Sir Douglas Quintet hit “She’s About a Mover”:

The aim of the early Sir Douglas Quintet is evident in “She’s About a Mover” as they are mixing  Tex-Mex, soul, and The Beatles into one big burrito with Augie Meyers’s magic Vox the final unique topping. “She’s About a Mover” is one of the great garage rock anthems and it deserves to be played in garages by start-up bands across the nation in perpetuity. A few years later, the Quintet dropped the Liverpool component of their sound and embraced a more West Coast feel as heard on their 1968 classic “Mendocino”:

Sahm’s desperate vocals in “Mendocino” are matched by the wailing of Augie’s magic Vox. We hear Sahm yell, “Aw, play it, Augie” in both the lead and harmony vocal parts, ensuring that we don’t miss who is playing. By any rights, the magic Vox should be issued to all would-be rock ‘n roll keyboard players. Not only did Dylan have Augie Meyers join the small orchestra that performed on Time Out of Mind, he also invited him to join his touring band in the studio to record the follow up, 2001’s “Love and Theft”. This album was Dylan’s first time producing himself as described in a previous post. Dylan knew what he wanted that first time out and it was Augie Meyers. Here’s how Dylan described what Meyers brings to a song:

“Augie’s my man. He’s like an intellectual who goes fishing using bookworms. Seriously though, he’s the shining example of a musician, Vox player or otherwise, who can break the code. His playing speaks volumes. Speaks in tongue actually. He can bring a song, certainly any one of mine, into the real world. I’ve loved his playing going all the way back to the Sir Doug days when he was featured and dominant. What makes him so great is that internally speaking, he’s the master of syncopation and timing. And this is something that cannot be taught. If you need someone to get you through the shipping lanes and there’s no detours, Augie will get you right straight through. Augie’s your man.”

“Love Sick” is one song that Dylan needed Augie’s assistance in guiding him through the shipping lanes. The desolation of the narrator in the song is complete because of his attachment to the unnamed loved one. His whole being is impacted: “My feet are so tired / My brain is so wired.” Dylan uses violent imagery to emphasize the perceived connection between the two lovers:

You destroyed me with a smile
While I was sleepin’

and

Sometimes
The silence can be like thunder
Sometimes
I wanna take to the road and plunder.

In his 2001 book Where Dead Voices Gather, Nick Tosches connects “Love Sick Blues,” the song made famous by Hank Williams, and Dylan’s “Love Sick” noting:

“As Mary Wack has observed, in her look back to classical antiquity at the outset of Lovesickness in the Middle Ages, ‘Ancient literature and medicine agreed in their descriptions, if not their evaluations, of eros experienced as illness.’ She reminds us that, as the legends went, ‘It was the madness of love that drove Sappho to leap to her death, and love that robbed Lucretius of reason.’”

The lack of reason when being struck by love sickness can be seen in the contradictory statements expressed by the narrator in “Love Sick”:

I’m sick of love…I wish I’d never met you
I’m sick of love…I’m trying to forget you

Just don’t know what to do
I’d give anything to be with you.

As said above, Dylan presents this entire song as a soundtrack to a horror movie. The narrator is afflicted by violent images. Love sickness is a haunting for the narrator; he is possessed. Trying with all his being to separate himself from this person, yet with his last words, with utter abandonment, he still admits from the darkest part of his being, “I’d give anything to be with you.” Dylan sells the words completely, croaking out this confession with complete disavowal of all of the statements that came before. Just as Dylan sings the last line, the music swells and Augie Meyer drops the quarter notes death march sound and, with his magic Vox, he swoops in and holds a nightmare of a chord, summoning every last horror movie soundtrack trope for the conclusion of the song. 

Back to the very beginning of the song, Dylan sings the following lines which evoke another work of art devoted to love sickness:

I’m walking through streets that are dead
Walking, walking with you in my head.

“Streets that are dead” have a connotation of a zombie city, a city infected with plague. In 1912, Thomas Mann published his novella Death in Venice. The story tells of the author Gustav von Aschenbach, who travels to Venice and becomes enthralled with a 14 year old boy named Tadzio. Never speaking with the boy or interacting beyond a few glances exchanged, Aschenbach is obsessed, his love sickness complete. Mann — through the words of Aschenbach — contemplates this infatuation:

“Because passion, like crime, does not like everyday order and well-being and every slight undoing of the bourgeois system, every confusion and infestation of the world is welcome to it, because it can unconditionally expect to find its advantage in it.”

The contradictions that Dylan expresses in the last verse of “Love Sick” is echoed by Mann:

“Passion paralyses good taste and makes its victim accept with rapture what a man in his senses would either laugh at or turn from with disgust.”

As Aschenbach’s obsession grows stronger and his devotion to Tadzio is complete, he learns that Venice is under quarantine due to an outbreak of cholera. Tadzio’s family is unaware of the quarantine as the Venetians do not publicize this fact for fear of running off tourists and so the family continues to tour the city as all travelers would do. Aschenbach knows about the quarantine, but does not inform the family because he doesn’t want to lose Tadzio. As Tadzio and his family tour Venice, Aschenbach follows them, anything to keep the object of his infatuation close. He recognizes within himself the abandonment of any moral code. Mann writes:

“The city’s evil secret mingled with the one in the depths of [Aschenbach’s] heart—and he would have staked all he possessed to keep it, since in his infatuation he cared for nothing but to keep Tadzio here, and owned to himself not without horror, that he could not exist were the lad to pass from his sight.”

As the narrator of “Love Sick” walks through “streets that are dead” so too does Aschenbach walk through a city struck with disease, representing his own degradation. Death in Venice is the ultimate novel of love sickness, sharing with Dylan’s “Love Sick” the emotions of hopelessness, aguish, and desperation.

The connection between “Love Sick” and Death in Venice was completed in 2004 in a bizarre way as both the song and Dylan himself were featured in a commercial for Victoria’s Secret:

The commercial was shot on location in Venice with dirty old man Dylan and Brazilian model Adriana Lima. The commercial shares its setting of Venice with the novel. Perhaps the conceit behind the commercial was that Dylan was the stand-in for Aschenbach. With the horror movie vibes of the featured song and the themes of degradation of both Death in Venice and “Love Sick,” this seems like a funny way to sell bras and underwear.

Image: W.G. Collingwood (1854 – 1932), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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