I once took a class called "Sociology of Rock 'n Roll" at Ohio University. It met on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons from 1:00 - 2:00, but the Friday afternoon session usually carried over to the Union Bar on Union Street, and sometimes we were still debating social mores and The Rolling Stones at midnight. It was the best class I ever took, although my parents probably viewed it as a waste of money. It wasn't.
The professor was a frustrated social protest/folk singer. He wrote a song called "Bullshit," and he performed it most Fridays at The Union after he had a few beers in him. It was about politicians in general and Richard Nixon in particular. It was a good song, cathartically pissed off and full of righteous indignation, and we all sang along.
One Friday he solemnly laid down his guitar, put his hand over his heart, and vowed that he could never write another song. It was all hopeless. He waved a purple album cover in front of us. "This," he said, "has done me in. You can't write a better album than this. There's no sense in even trying."
It was Bob Dylan's new album Blood on the Tracks, which had come out a couple days before. A few folks had heard it, but most people had not, so the professor slapped it on the turntable and cranked up the volume.
And he was pretty much right. Everybody knew Bob Dylan. He was a folk protest singer. He had written those surrealistic rock 'n roll classics in the mid-sixties. He was the country squire of Nashville Skyline. But he had never written anything like this. And he was writing about something he had never really written about before: Bob Dylan. Maybe divorce does that to you.
I've heard that album so many times now that it's almost part of my DNA. It's arguably the best album from the best songwriter of the rock 'n roll era. But initially I couldn't take it all in. There was only one song that immediately struck me, sitting in that bar, and it still raises the hairs on the back of my neck. It goes like this:
Our conversation was short and sweet
It nearly swept me off my feet
And I'm back in the rain, oh, oh,
And you are on dry land
You made it there somehow
You're a big girl now
Bird on the horizon, sittin' on a fence
He's singin' his song for me at his own expense
And I'm just like that bird, oh, oh,
Singin' just for you
I hope that you can hear
Hear me singin' through these tears
Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast
Oh, but what a shame if all we've shared can't last
I can change, I swear, oh, oh
See what you can do
I can make it through
You can make it too
Love is so simple, to quote a phrase
You've known it all the time
I'm learnin' it these days
Oh, I know where I can find you, oh, oh
In somebody's room
It's a price I have to pay
You're a big girl all the way
A change in the weather is known to be extreme
But what's the sense of changing horses in midstream?
I'm going out of my mind, oh, oh
With a pain that stops and starts
Like a corkscrew to my heart
Ever since we've been apart
-- Bob Dylan, "You're a Big Girl Now"
It was a form of voyeurism, a kind of window into the heart that was a little too clear. I had never heard that kind of vulnerability before. And it was uncomfortable. It was painful to hear. It was the kind of song that somebody writes when they're wide awake at 3:00 a.m., staring up at the ceiling, pondering the fact that the best part of life has just walked out the door.
I love that song for many reasons. But the best reason, the reason that sticks with me, is the singing. You have to hear it to understand. Yeah, I know. Bob Dylan can't sing. And as my professor used to say, "Bullshit." Bob Dylan can sing, and nowhere does he sing any better than on this song. Here is the Voice of a Generation, the Pied Piper of the Counterculture, The Songwriter of all Songwriters, and do you know the best part of that song? It's when Dylan sings "oh, oh." You can't transcribe that properly. You have to hear it. It is what the apostle Paul describes as "groanings too deep for words." It's Bob Dylan opening the window on his soul. It's too painful. But it's thrilling.
I haven't played Blood in the Tracks for a few years, but I've been listening to it over the past few days. I'm going to play that song at an upcoming arts conference. And I'm going to talk about why the words "oh, oh" might constitute some of the best songwriting ever.