By Tony Attwood
Silvio is one of those rarities – a Dylan song in which the lyrics were not written by Dylan. In this case they were written by Robert Hunter (of Grateful Dead fame). In fact Robert Hunter has worked with Dylan on a whole series of songs – two from Down in the Groove, one on Tempest and virtually the whole of Together Through Life.
There is a comment on the internet that says that the song is dedicated to Silvio Rodriguez, a Cuban folk singer and songwriter. Silvio admired Bob for a long time and when they met he gave him a song calles “la cosa esta en…” I’ve not been able to verify all of this.
So what made Dylan accept these lyrics?
Maybe it was the opening line (remembering that this song was written for Down in the Groove, and released at a time when Dylan’s musical reputation was going nowhere fast). Knocked Out Loaded had received very poor reviews, (as was this album) and the general opinion is that the recordings of Knocked Out come from different sessions between 1983 and 1987. This implies Dylan was having his worst ever period of Writers’ Block.
The man who could put Tambourine Man, Gates of Eden, It’s All Right Ma and It’s all over now baby blue on one side of one album, had utterly lost his way, it seemed.
(In fact even worse – in the eyes of many – was to come, with the release of Dylan and the Dead, the following year – a recording that was disliked even more, by many commentators.)
So in the light of what happened up to the release of this album it is worth noting with interest the opening verse, sung after the “Silvio” chorus.
Stake my future on a hell of a past
Looks like tomorrow is coming on fast
Ain’t complaining ’bout what I got
Seen better times, but who has not?
Within the context that is one hell of an opening. And musically yet it is upbeat and optimistic, with one of Dylan’s favourite chord sequences of flattened I, 7th, IV. This is immediately recognisable as identical to Isis.
So with this upbeat music Dylan is clearly saying, “it doesn’t really matter too much that I can’t write at the moment, I’ve really done so much before, I am allowed a bit of an off spell.”
It is a chord sequence that gives the melody enormous free reign. There is a sense of the tonic (I) but the flattened seventh introducing an extra blue note not available in the major scale of the tonic gives us an edge, an instant feeling that this is rock.
But then, what on earth do we make of the chorus?
Silver and gold
Won’t buy back the beat of a heart grown cold
I gotta go
Find out something only dead men know
That last line is horrific – it sounds like a vision of suicide. And yet surely it can’t be, not with this bouncy jolly music rushing along. And if the melody and chords were not enough, what about the backing – all those jolly bouncy singers using words and sounds to urge the music along?
The best we can make of this combination of upbeat music and frightening last line is that the song suggests that all the money in the world can’t help the writing of better songs. Songs come from the heart not from the money.
There is however defiance in the music and in the lyrics. The production levels are high, with the accompanying singers in perfect timing, as Dylan sings:
If you don’t like it you can leave me alone
The song says, “I’ve still got it all…”
I can snap my fingers and require the rain
From a clear blue sky and turn it off again
I can stroke your body and relieve your pain
And charm the whistle off an evening train
And most emphatically he says, I create what I can, and when I can go no further, I can go no further. If you don’t like what I am offering these days, then off you go. The door is open, I’m still here bouncing along with these backing singers.
I give what I got until I got no more
I take what I get until I even the score
You know I love you and furthermore
When it’s time to go you got an open door
Writing has been at a cost – these great songs don’t just pop out of my head, are scribbled down and then allow me to nip down the street to buy a paper. I give you pleasure, but it costs me dear.
I can tell you fancy, I can tell you plain
You give something up for everything you gain
Since every pleasure’s got an edge of pain
Pay for your ticket and don’t complain
Only history will tell if I really was a great singer/songwriter, or not, but I believe in myself.
One of these days and it won’t be long
Going down in the valley and sing my song
I will sing it loud and sing it strong
Let the echo decide if I was right or wrong
And so we are left with that terrible frightening last line. In the music it is a throw away. To Dylan, who knows what it meant at the time. But maybe we should just take it as a blues line, for this is where Dylan came from, and where, as we have now seen, he would end up.
Find out something only dead men know