Bobby Dylan, You Little Tramp

    Sometimes album titles say it all. Sometimes they don’t. And sometimes, Bob Dylan is involved, and all bets are off. Here’s what we know in re Dylan’s last three records. Time Out of Mind comes from “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Love and Theft shares its name with that Eric Lott minstrelsy book that I’ve never read. And Modern Times, I’m guessing, is from the Chaplin movie (unless it’s a Jefferson Starship reference, in which case Dylan is a more puzzling man than any of us can fathom).
    Not too long ago I rented (Chaplin’s) Modern Times on DVD (charging it to the Prefix expense account, of course — cha-ching!) to see if there were any obvious or not-so-obvious connections between Dylan’s new album and Chaplin’s acknowledged masterpiece. The results of this little aesthetic experiment were, unsurprisingly, inconclusive. You kidding? This is Dylan, after all. Inconclusiveness and ambiguity and mystery are all part of the game. (On the new album, for example, he goes looking for Alicia Keys in Tennessee — wha? — and sucks the milk out of a thousand cows — huh? — and that’s just on the first song.)
    So, here’s what I discovered about Modern Times the movie. First, if you haven’t seen it, definitely add it to your Netflix queue. It’s really funny and strange, and Chaplin is totally mesmerizing, possessing the greatest comic timing and most perfect facial expressions you’ll ever see. The bit where he inadvertently puts “nose powder” in his soup is one of the most exceedingly precise bits of physical comedy ever filmed.
    Second, Modern Times the movie ends with the tramp and the gamin walking off into the horizon, out of sight. On “Ain’t Talkin’,” the last song on Modern Times the album, Dylan sings of “walking till I’m clear out of sight.” So there’s that too.
    Finally, and most significantly, is the movie’s long, climactic café scene. Chaplin, in character as the “Little Tramp,” is hired to sing in a café, only he can’t remember the words to his song. His female companion — the brains of the operation — writes the lyrics on his shirt cuff. All good, right? Well, when the tramp goes out in front of the crowd to do his dance and sing his song, his shirt cuffs go flying off during a particularly exuberant dance move. Basically, at this point the tramp is fucked — he can’t remember the lyrics, he’s in front of an increasingly antsy audience, and he needs this job, badly; it’s the Depression and he’s poor as shit. So what does he do? He makes up the lyrics, singing in a purely nonsensical mishmash of French, Italian, maybe some Spanish and definitely some plain-old gibberish. And the crowd loves it.
    And 70 years later, Dylan names his album after that movie. Do you think the reason might be — and again, I’m just speculating here — but do you think Dylan might identify with the little tramp in that scene?