During the Del Lord’s gig at Sullivan Hall last week, Eric Ambel mentioned how his wife Mary Lee Kortes learnt harp over a period of two weeks for her live on stage Blood On The Tracks album but since she is singing (in a heart boxed out throaty hurdle during the coda of a biting, head snapping 8 minute “Idiot Wind” ) I guess someone else was playing the harp from time to time.
I’d like to say “Idiot Wind” was a stand out, but it was just one of ten breathtaking takes on a whole lotta issues drawn off Bob Dylan’s borderline misogynist divorce saga Blood On The Tracks.
Don’t get me wrong, Dylan’s album fits right along with and between Highway 61 Revisited and Time Out Of Mind as major works and major shifts for the master. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its issues.
When Mary Lee went to perform it with her band Mary Lee’s Corvette at Arlene’s Grocery back in September 2001, perhaps she thought it was an homage or a thinking about or maybe it was a type of goof but one of those goofs where you get in deeper than you bargained for. Where it sounds like a good idea and suddenly you are learning harp and the words to 15 verses of “Lily, Rosemary and The Jack of hearts” and wondering whether it was worth it.
In this case, it was more than worth it.
Recorded for posterity, I tracked the album down on ITunes and I am knocked out. Mary Lee can sing for sure, the reviews say she is like a rock and roll country singer, and I guess what they mean is when she doesn’t sing a ballad she is all edge and when she does sing a ballad, the edge is foregone (though Kortes is originally from Minneapolis) for a twang. Maybe an implied twang, maybe you think you are hearing it because you are listening for it.
The voice is what powers Blood On The Track, it is like seeing a magician and then realizing that the magician is actually Harry Potter –the magic is real. “Tangled Up In Blue” asks so much, like ridiculous amounts, from a first song. I was arguing about live shows and opening songs with a friend of mine. I claim you always start with your best because, cmon, if you are gonna trick and pick up a girl at a bar do you start with the second best line? When do you get to you’re “A” game. But here, you kind of wish Mary Lee had an easier song, maybe could ease her way in with “Shelter From The Storm”. But she can’t and there is nowhere for Mary Lee to run so the words come thundering down and perhaps its good because the primary question mark, the sexual confusion having a woman sing these songs, gets lost in the forward throttle of the track.
So you get Mary Lee dealing with so much and a harp with the very opening song. It is a stately rapping move to the harmonica solo to bring it over the top and there is a sense, like BB King said about “Maybelline”, you could end up stranded in that bed before the song is over.
When Dylan, in beautiful voice by the way, sings it, it is a vindictive rumination, when Mary Lee sings, “Tangled Up In Blue” becomes a rush of memory. I can’t say enough about Mary Lee’s voice here, I can’t express my admiration high enough for the passion and composure and concentration used in this song. It is so easy to lose sight of meaning, there are too many words, you could sink in them.
But the higher the hurdle, the higher the jump and while the next two songs are fine, track number four is one of the great Dylan interpretations. Remember, this was recorded live and by the time we’ve reached “Idiot Wind”, Mary Lee has been on stage some 20 minutes and has her bearings and she gets all of a song nearly impossible to sing. At eight minutes plus of lip smacking, brain thumping fear and loathing, reaching its bottom with “I can’t even read the books you’ve read”, Dylan and Mary Lee are ready to marry their hatred of a person with self-loathing. So much anguish to get to “blowing through the letters that we wrote”.
Mary Lee ends “You’re A Big Girl Now” with a mournful harmonica solo but she begins “Idiot Wind” as passionately as Dylan did. The song reeks of dashed illusion and Mary Lee… I don’t know who she was thinking of. Maybe her stalled career. Maybe New York City. But it is real and on the last couplet of the chorus, she drawls and draws it out.
This isn’t like the Fab Faux playing The White Album, it isn’t homage. Or rather it isn’t only homage. Perhaps it’s like an acting job in which you really believe in the role. Somewhere in Dylan’s driven woman hating, Mary Lee finds her common humanity with him, maybe it is her own misandry? Misanthropy? Those are the words that come to mind but the best song of the set, on the album, is not the same for each. Dylan doesn’t improve on “Idiot Wind” but Mary Lee does, “If You See Her, Say Hello” is such a stand out it cuts Dylan’s original and the reason is Dylan sings with resignation but Mary Lee hasn’t lost the bitterness and even at the end of the song, the bitter feelings really do linger on.
Look at Blood On The Tracks this way: three long folk rockers and seven shorter country rockers. More or less. The third of the three long ones “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts” and even sharing verses with the audience and Mary Lee hasn’t lost her zen. Fifteen verses and she still pulls off the ending, the “she was thinking about her father who she very rarely saw”. And this is where the switch in sexes gives the songs a depth they didn’t have before, she seems to scrape the soul of the track, she seems to leave here her own blood on the track.
Anyway, since the three tracks she had to get to pull it off are three of the four best tracks this evening, she is freed on the others to pursue her muse, her Mary Lee Corvetteiness. “Meet Me In The Morning” is a desire blues, “Shelter From The Storm” folk muse, “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” country folk and with a new wavey something else to her vocal.
I’ve said this remake was about Mary Lee’s voice and it is, but it is also about guitar. On song after song you can here the tweaking of the strings, the strum, the mood. It seems to echo back to an even earlier Dylan and also to an earlier Mary Lee, it is a simple strum and pick.
I totally missed this album when it was first released but now I have heard it, it will remain alongside the original, an album of broken love I will carry forever.
Less push, More flow
350 rock critics, wannabe rock critics, or people with OCD
a new Tupac Shakur exhibit opening downtown LA
a pop LP that isn’t popular is a question mark…
her mama don’t like you and she likes everyone…
the riffs have never been so heavy
I bet Sub Pop were overjoyed as well
“begs you not to sit in the difficult moments”
the names aren’t as eye popping for music