You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go: the line most commentators miss.

By Tony Attwood

This is another example of why the notion of looking at the songs in the order in which they were written, rather than how they appeared on an album, really pays dividends.  Just look at the list of songs that led up to this:

He’s looking back at his life gone wrong from every different angle, building up to the almighty climax of anger, disgust, annoyance, angst and just about everything else you could throw into it with Idiot Wind.   And then having got that out of his hair, he can calm down, and write a song for a young lady who he is having what he knows will be a temporary affair – apparently Ellen Bernstein.

And he can apparently have a good old laugh at himself as Dylan throws in one hell of a jokey reflection on his life, which gives us a much better insight into the song.  Ignore that one line, and the song is interesting, well written and entertaining.  Put it in, and suddenly we know, Dylan really is having a bit of fun.  “Idiot Wind” really has seen through all the anger.  Now we can relax.  He can laugh at himself.

Of course there is still quite a bit of angst about how love affairs always go wrong.  But mostly this is a song of acceptance.  I know you’ll go back to your husband / lover / whoever when our fling is over, and I know that is going to hurt, but still, it will have been worth it.  Because in the past I have had utter disasters of affairs and relationships, and if I am now going to enter a new period of my life.  Are we all ready for this?

At least that is how I hear it.  But “All music” – whose reviews I normally either can go along with, or can at least find informative and insightful, doesn’t help out this time saying,

Over a melancholy descending chord progression, Dylan sings the poignant melody of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” wistfully, as if with wizened smile at the hopeless situation, trying to enjoy it while it lasts.

OK I can see where they are coming from, but really how does that fit with their later comment that “the singer sounds absolutely giddy at times”.  That sounds like they’ve picked up the clue in the fourth verse (the verse after the middle 8 which starts “Situations have ended sad,” but then they explore it no further so we are none the wiser.

I think they are misreading this totally.  It is not a melancholy descending bass (I am not quite sure how one knows that a descending bass is melancholy or buoyant except that I don’t get any sense of melancholy here), and if it had been written to be melancholy, why would Dylan brings such life and fun into the performances on the second Revue tour (see below).

The All Music piece focuses on the “sad sentiment” that “makes the song that much more heartbreaking.”   But for me this is a major part of the journey back from the separation and divorce.  This is not “turmoil”, at least not in the normal sense of the word, but exploration with understanding.  As if he is saying, “Yes I know I’m going to be sad, but it is part of what I am going through on the way to recovery.  I’m on my way back.”

It is no coincidence that the song is sung mostly in the present and future tenses – an interesting contrast to the mixed tenses of Tangled up in Blue, the present and past tenses of “Idiot Wind” and now this is the short term future.  Leaving the past, moving on.

Just take a look afresh at the second and third verses…

Dragon clouds so high above
I’ve only known careless love
It’s always hit me from below
This time around it’s more correct
Right on target, so direct
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

Purple clover, Queen Anne lace
Crimson hair across your face
You could make me cry if you don’t know
Can’t remember what I was thinkin’ of
You might be spoilin’ me too much, love
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

As for the middle 8, when was Dylan last so upbeat and hopeful?  He’s back in his rural idyll.

Flowers on the hillside, bloomin’ crazy
Crickets talkin’ back and forth in rhyme
Blue river runnin’ slow and lazy
I could stay with you forever
And never realize the time

And then, in the midst of all this jolly joyousness, we get…

Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud
But there’s no way I can compare
All those scenes to this affair
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

It is intriguing that not very many commentators have tackled the third line of this verse – a line on which the whole of the song revolves.  Indeed now I think about it, I am not sure who has commented on it at all.

And yet it is interesting for me, as a non-religious person, how little commentary such a challenging verse might get in comparison with some of religious references in, for example in the songs of the JWH album where almost every song is seen by some to be religious.  If a line can be so important there, why not here?

The first thing to recall is that Dylan loves making odd references, and I am often not at all sure that he is making a serious or indeed insightful point.  He’s just picking up images from his past experience and memories and throwing them in, without them having deep meaning.   But here he is, I think, saying, “yes my life has been pretty up and down and wild, I’ve taken drugs, mixed up with the craziest people, been the inventor of surreal rock lyrics, but now I am getting myself back together.  And hell, yes, now I come to think about it, Bob Dylan is a business, an empire of money making, and hey, that’s ok too.”

Dylan mentions Rimbaud in Chronicles, saying, “I came across one of his letters called “Je est un autre” which translates into “I is someone else.”  When I read those words the bells went off. It made perfect sense.”

And as we’ve already established in other reviews here, Rimbaud was certainly an influence in some of the early electric albums especially with the introduction of a stream of surreal characters flitting in and out of the narrative all the way up to the Million Dollar Bash.

So what does the Verlaine and Rimbaud line mean?  And why is it important?

Aged around 17 Rimbaud (and having been writing extraordinary poetry since his primary school years), he started writing to poets to try and meet up with them and explore his own ideas for his new style of writing, a style generally referred to as a precursor of surrealism.

Most of the up and coming writers of the time didn’t want anything to do with this crazy kid, hardly out of school, and so most ignored him, but eventually Paul Verlaine (aged 28 at the time) replied and took Rimbaud in.   Verlaine’s wife (like Rimbaud also just 17 years old) was pregnant, and yet Verlaine had just left his job and was drinking absinthe and smoking hashish and abusing his wife – and later his baby son.

The net result of meeting Rimbaud was that Verlaine then left his teenage wife and infant son, became Rimbaud’s lover and the pair moved to Bloomsbury, living in poverty, writing and quarrelling.  The two men split up, then got back together in Brussels, whereupon Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the wrist.

Verlaine was arrested and Rimbaud testified against him in court and eventually Verlaine got two years in prison.  Rimbaud then went back home and wrote  Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell) and spoke disparagingly of his former lover thereafter.  By the time Verlaine came out of prison Rimbaud had got a steady job and had given up writing and didn’t want to know his old mate.  A year later Rimbaud signed up in the Dutch Colonial Army, which turned out to be the start of a series of bizarre adventures and ultimately the launch of his business career.

Given all this it seems Dylan’s reference is not so much throwaway line, as a new way of seeing his past.  It is as if he is saying that this is one way to interpret his love life and (when one thinks further) his business life and growing wealth.

And indeed he could well be talking not just to his lover but to everyone, including himself when he sings…

You’re gonna make me wonder what I’m sayin’
You’re gonna make me give myself a good talkin’ to

So he then reflects on life on the road and how the lady is going to leave while he continues touring (or is it that they will split up at the end of the tour? I’m not quite sure).

I’ll look for you in old Honolul-a
San Francisco, Ashtabula
You’re gonna have to leave me now, I know

Overall I think the line

Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud

is a suggestion that he is now on the way back to normality – and that his endless tour is in fact his equivalent of Rimbaud’s bizarre adventures after the split with Verlaine and the end of his writing poetry.  Aside from the Dutch Colonial Army Rimbaud also went to Cyprus to work as a stone quarry foreman (can you imagine – from poet to stone quarry foreman?) and then went to Yemen working as a supervisor selecting coffee in an import/export agency before moving to Ethiopia with the same firm.

Later still he set up his own business dealing in coffee and weapons, helping Negus of Shewa become Menelik II, Emperor of Ethiopia.  He became established in the Ethiopian hierarchy, and was in fact a highly successful entrepreneur until he developed what was probably bone cancer, dying on 10 November 1891 aged 37. 

So, having taken that in, what do we have?  Either a throwaway line to help the rhyme scheme, or a statement saying “I’m joking” or maybe saying, “well, yes, Rimbaud wrote amazing stuff in his early years, and then after breaking up with his lover, travelled the world and had a successful business career.  I can do that, without getting shot, and without the cancer.

Musically, the song is also interesting.  If we look back to the chords of the original recording of “You’re a big girl now” we find here again a similar approach, and it is clear Dylan is clearly fascinated by the chords he introduced into You’re a big girl now, as now they turn up again.  This version is taken from the excellent Dylanchords website.

E                 Emaj7
I've seen love go by my door
It's never been this close before
E             Emaj7      B11
Never been so easy or so slow.
     E               Emaj7
Been shooting in the dark too long
When somethin's not right it's wrong
E                    B11               E . . .
You're gonna make me lonesome when you go.

There is, if you are interested in such things, a lovely Rolling Thunder version – one of those where he re-writes the song and gives some new sense and meaning.

And as something else, try this reinterpretation.  Just put up with the wait at the start, you might well find it worth the wait.

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4 Responses to You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go: the line most commentators miss.

  1. Martin Schaefer says:

    Highly interesting. The “Verlaine and Rimbaud” line makes me think of this other, earlier line:

    “I can’t recall San Francisco at all/ In fact, I can’t even remember El Paso honey”!



  2. Maybe you didn’t want to belabor the obvious, but isn’t “all these scenes to this affair” just an English transliteration of “Une Saison en Enfer,” the title of Rimbaud’s book? Which highlights the importance of the Rimbaud line.

  3. TonyAttwood says:

    Larry, that’s the great value of this type of writing. When I miss something like that, it can be added. I’ve always just thought of the book as A Season in Hell and nothing else. Never struck me that it could be something else, so I never made the connection.

    No I wasn’t being clever and not belabouring the obvious – it wasn’t obvious to me!

  4. Rob Geurtsen says:

    and again Tony you paint a picture of Dylan’s work that pulls the greatness to the forefront. The art is only there when the song is performed, the poetry in and by itself is only just so much.
    Play or perform the song and the layers and facets of the diamonds shine thru or not, it’s up to us. You writing the reviews provide opportunity to learn about the layers and all the facets that enhance the art.

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