Can You Go a Little Deeper: Dylan and the BandI hate to even say this out loud, but my introduction to “This Wheel’s on Fire” was via the 90s-era TV show Absolutely Fabulous, which used the song as its theme. Rather than the Band’s version, though, AbFab used a poppy, sort of psychedelic version by Julie Driscoll.
The original was a darker-themed dirge recorded by Bob Dylan and the Band during the legendary 1967 sessions at Big Pink. It would later be officially released on the 1975 The Basement Tapes album.
Like many Dylan songs, “This Wheel’s on Fire” seems to defy defining. Is it a religious song? Is it an apocalyptic vision he’s giving us? Could it even be a tale of a gunfighter?
While I was doing some research on this song, I stumbled across a blog called “Every Bob Dylan Song.” The entry for “Wheel” begins with a story about a conversation that took place among the Beatles while they were recording Let It Be. When the discussion turned to the topic of song writing, someone said that a great song doesn't have to tell a story or even make much sense; if the words match the emotion of the backing, you can make a masterpiece without hewing to musical convention.
Anthony, the blog’s writer, sticks pretty much to this thesis as he discusses “This Wheel’s on Fire,” although he does give mention to other views, particularly the idea that the song is a fire and brimstone sermon.
Interestingly, one of the comments on the blog notes that the line “if your memory serves you well” comes from Arthur Rimbaud's poem “Une Saison en Enfer.” Dylan, of course, regarded the French poet as a major influence, once telling friends, “Rimbaud’s where it's at. That's the kind of stuff means something. That's the kind of writing I'm gonna do.”
Dylan has never hidden the fact that he’s borrowed from the masters, so it’s very possible indeed that some of the French decadent's influence found its way into some other areas of “This Wheel’s on Fire.”
On the other hand, it's also possible this song is nothing more than a classic example of what the Beatles were talking about....
This Wheel’s on Fire.mp3
(Can You Go a Little Deeper is an irregularly recurring feature here wherein I resurrect old favorites, lost songs, and other things you maybe haven’t heard in a while)