Tim Riley - Hard Rain: A Dylan Commentary

Hard Rain: A Dylan Commentary

A Book by Tim Riley

First Appeared in The Music Box, January 1998, Volume 5, #1

Written by John Metzger


Tim Riley's Hard Rain: A Dylan Commentary tells the tale of Bob Dylan from his folk music beginnings to his status as a legendary poet and rock musician. Riley tackles the story, album by album creating an in-depth portrait of Dylan. Throughout the book, which was published in 1992, Riley draws from and synthesizes the myriad commentary that preceded him in order to form a more complete picture. He analyzes Dylan's words and music, his relationships with other musicians, his influences, and his relationship with his audience.

The book's only flaws lie in Riley's condescending attitude toward other talented musicians like The Byrds and Donovan. In addition, Riley's style of writing all too often reads like a textbook. But these flaws are minor in comparison to the wealth of knowledge and insight he imparts.

Riley's insights help to shed light not only on Dylan, but on other musicians as well. The discussion of Dylan's early folk albums (and influences) could easily apply to singer/songwriter John Wesley Harding. In addition, his discussion of Visions of Johanna prompted a number of thoughts regarding the relationship between Jerry Garcia and the music of Bob Dylan (see below).

Hopefully, Hard Rain will be updated. It seems a shame to end this analysis on such a negative note, though much of what Dylan was doing at the time of its writing was sub-par, at least for him. But following two albums of cover songs (which allowed Dylan to revisit his roots), he returned with latest masterpiece Time Out of Mind and several outstanding tours. Dylan seems to have put all the pieces back into place. Dylan is certainly back, and he's better than ever. starstarstar ˝


In Hard Rain, Riley writes:

"Johanna" is herself absent from the narrative (except for her persistence in her ex-lover's hallucinations); the emotional texture is suffused with hazy duress. The "rain" that Louise holds out in the third line is double-talk for heroin, and the lovers' chemical addiction works as a metaphor for a compulsive emotional bond....The first verse describes a drug den, where lights glimmer from a nearby loft, the heat pipes cough, a country station plays quietly, and the lovers sit estranged — from each other, and their interior selves. The first verse's last two lines shift from Louise's lover to these visions of Johanna that "conquer my mind," as though the protagonist is seeing the situation from outside himself as he reacts to the scene he's describing. He wants it to be someone else's tragedy....If verse four simply prolonged the quietly anxious mood (while gently laughing at itself), the last verse does nothing but intensify it. The protagonist is now "the peddler"...who fesses up to his dependency while defending it (everybody is parasitic, he says). Louise is compared to a countess making preparations as she mocks the protagonist's innocence toward either sex or the next fix, or both. The tilt towards insanity is underlined by the elongation of the final verse, where two extra lines are wedged into the twelve-line format to emphasize how the song's voice has come unglued; the narrator's conscience bursts.

Michael Gray (author of Song and Dance Man: The Art of Bob Dylan) holds that "if the ‘rain' of verse one is indeed heroin, Louise's gesture in ‘temptin' you to defy it' seems positive. But holding out a handful of heroin and tempting the addict to resist can hardly be called a "positive" image. It's almost like Dylan set out to write the darkest, most dissuasive ode to drug use imaginable, and then cloaked it in relationship metaphors.

I must admit that I never really looked at Visions of Johanna as being a song about heroin addiction. However, the interpretation fits the song like a glove.

Anyone who was at the July 8, 1995 Grateful Dead concert at Soldier Field saw a pretty sad night for Jerry Garcia. Yet, for this song, he pulled it all together and gave a stunningly brilliant performance. It's almost as if this was a desperate cry for help.

It becomes even more bone-chilling after the Grateful Dead ended the July 9, 1995 show at the same venue with Black Muddy River. (This was the band's final show, and this was Garcia's final song selection). My wife and I (and many I've talked to since) did not want the band to leave the stage. At every other show we attended, we never wanted the night to end, but easily accepted that there was only one encore. There was something in the air over these two shows, and I believe bassist Phil Lesh felt it too as he pulled out his third song of the night (and of all songs) Box of Rain to conclude the show. He later stated in an interview withDavid Gans, host of the Grateful Dead Hour, that he just didn't want the show to end with Black Muddy River.

Call me crazy, but I really felt something cosmic going on at these final two shows, and it became stronger as the second night neared its conclusion. It was terribly eerie and became more so in hindsight. Reading this passage and pondering it while reflecting back has made things a little clearer in my mind, while at the same time it's all become rather haunting. As the song goes, "Believe it if you need it...."

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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!


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