Heart of Mine: The meaning of the music and the lyrics

When Shot of Love came out in 1981 I was coming to the end of my time as a senior lecturer in music at a university in the south west of England.  A beautiful place to work, study and indeed bring up my very young family. but a little isolated; no one really to discuss the latest Dylan with.

So instead I foisted it on my students and I remember the playing of this track from the LP to one of my classes as being one of my final seminars before leaving academia for good.   As I recall they weren’t really fans of Dylan, but we reached the conclusion that this actually was a superb song, but the arrangement was a mess.

That was the view that I kept, until very late in the day I bought a copy of Biograph – by which time I’d left the academic world and was battling it out with a billion other lost souls as a writer.

Now there wasn’t even some bored and disinterested students around to debate intellectual concepts and reviews with, so I listened alone, after reading my daughters their good night story.  I went downstairs, played Heart of Mine on Biograph and shouted out “Yes!” thus waking them all up again.

So a firm ticking off from my wife, but pleasure inside for here was the proof: “Heart of Mine” is a fantastic song – we’d just been given the wrong version.

And later again as I found the time to read reviews and commentaries on Dylan, with all the details of the different recordings that were made of this song, I found that Dylan himself called his choice of version “perverse”.  Apparently it doesn’t even have Ringo Starr on bongos as is sometimes said – it seems he was hitting a tambourine occasionally.

The problem with the song is that because of the change of rhythm and style in the third line (“Don’t let her know” in the first verse, followed by the hanging “Don’t let her know that you love her”) it needs highly rehearsed top quality musicians to pull it off, and it seems that the recording Dylan chose to release didn’t have either the musicians or the rehearsal.

The change of rhythm between “Don’t let her know” and “Don’t be a fool don’t be blind” when performed properly, is a total master stroke musically, as I’ll try to explain.

The song has four beats in each bar but musicall Dylan surprises us with where each bar is actually starting.

In the first line, “Heart of mine be still,” the word “heart” comes on the second beat of the bar – there is no singing on beat one.  Very unusual.  Then in the next bar there is no singing at all until the word “be” on the last beat of the bar, leaving “still” sitting alone on the first beat of the next line.

The next line is quite different again as you can hear when playing the Biograph version.

But now focus on the next three lines if you have a moment to do so.

Don’t let her know.  Here Dylan pushes the words faster than the accompaniment, and then waits for the music to catch up.  We feel we’re rushing

Dont’ let her know that you love her.  Here the beats are more evenly spaced in the lyrics with “Don’t”, “Know” and “Love” having the accents – this is catchy and interesting, but a conventional use of the beat – in contrast to the fast line.   Even if we don’t know anything about music in terms of its construction, we are wondering where this is going – just as we have time to wonder where a sentence is going while a speaker is still delivering the sentence and seeming to be saying something very odd.

And what Dylan does in the light of this confusion is deliberately change the rhythm again – he’s virtually into triplets (three equal pulses to a single beat) with “Don’t be a”… But it is almost but not quite.

This is magical because the triplets give the feeling of wave like motion, the ups and down of the sea as it were.  But as I said, these are not perfect triplets, because the line is edgy – he is telling himself to stay calm, not to go over the line, not to make a fool of himself yet again.  Riding the waves is NOT the option he should be taking.

Don’t be a fool don’t be blind

This really is superb, and it is undoubtedly what Dylan appreciated that he had created.  But somehow he then chose to release a really poor version – as it was bound to be when he didn’t have a top rate drummer, and musicians who fully understood the song, working with him.

Even if you don’t follow my musical analysis, just compare the Biograph version of this song with any classic Dylan track.  Think of Rolling Stone, for example, with that relentless plod upwards in the music as he says, “Once upon a time” etc.  There’s a clear pulse and beat all the way.

But in “Heart of Mine” on Biograph, Dylan is in a totally different musical country

Which is not to say the Biograph version is perfect, far from it.  It is just that its errors are nothing compared to the disasters on the album version.  There are musical slips in the intro – the band is not sure what happens there but they do pull themselves together.

Just listen to the way Dylan suddenly softens his voice at “be still” – it is perfection in terms of delivery.  Just consider how the melody and the rhythm in the first two lines of each verse changes.  How often do we get that?  Very rarely.

The instrumental on the Biograph version is also much better than on Shot of Love – although again far from perfect, for this is a complex instrumental break to pull off.  But at least the organist gives it a go in a way that makes you think that he sure as hell knows what sort of musical piece he’s playing here.

On Shot of Love no one wants to take responsibility.  and why should they – it is a very complicated song, and Dylan clearly hasn’t said what he wants to happen.  So nothing does.

On the Biograph version the instrumental break is held until after the third verse, and yes the organist gets carried away with himself in the third line, but even so, this is heaven combined with the purgatory of the Shot of Love version.

The female vocals also work, whereas on the album, the singer is all over the place with her harmonies.  Mind you, with the band doing what it is doing, it is not surprising.

I’ve seen it written that this song is partially religious, partially a love song, but I don’t see that.  It’s a song in which the singer is worrying about his own behaviour, not because of any religious belief, but because he is concerned about not hurting others.  It is a moral song.

I suppose the argument that it relates to Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” is the starting point of the argument that there is a religious connotation, but I think it is a fairly feeble point.  Jeremiah had bigger things on his mind.  He wrote about the coming God-given disasters and the need to repent for the past worship of idols.  As I read it – and as I have said before I am not a Christian, Jew nor Muslim (and Jeremiah pops up in all three religions) – Jeremiah is not telling us that we shouldn’t fall for another woman while married to another.  If you want all those rules its Leviticus for you, not Jeremiah.

Besides which, if Dylan is seriously delivering the message of Jeremiah, or indeed any other prophet, is he really going to do it with what various writers have called a “loosey-goosey piano” and “honky tonk”.

I suppose it is possible, but then it would be good if Bob might touch on such points or give us a further clue in the lyrics – but he hasn’t.   And that I think is a viable issue, because if you think back to by Dylan with Gotta Serve Somebody we get Dylan’s religious message full on and it does not sound like Heart of Mine.

This, for me, is a piece of personal morality.  It is, quite simply, “I want you, but it would be wrong of me to have you.”

As for the lyrics – the lyrics provided on the official Dylan site don’t turn up on either version, both of which combine and change the third and four verses as shown on the site.

There’s nothing profound or magical here in the words, but great songs don’t need profundity, they need a superb mix of melody and lyric. And “Heart of mine go back home” is a damn sight better line than 99% of pop song lines, just as

Heart of mine go back where you been
It’ll only be trouble for you if you let her in

is a perfect way of saying “That woman is trouble”.

And what of

Heart of mine so malicious and so full of guile

Are there many more devastatingly self- loathing lines in popular music?  I doubt it.

And ok, ‘don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time!'” comes from hip, and from Baretta, and Dylan’s just turned it around.  So what?  It works for me.  It’s not brilliant, but it works.   Even Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci got his maths out of skew sometimes.

Index to all the songs.

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