By Tony Attwood
I think I must have been about 15 when I first heard the “Times” album. The next day I went out and bought my first guitar (cost £10.00 I think – maybe $13.00), plus a copy of Bert Weedon’s “Play in a Day” and I started to learn.
This wasn’t quite as big a shot in the dark as it might sound. My grandfather was a piano maker in one of the many tiny piano making companies that existed through the big cities of the UK before the second world war, while my father was both a classical pianist and a saxophonist in a touring dance band. I was being touted as a potential professional musician at the time, but ultimately my sight reading let me down.
So going out and buying a guitar in the belief I could teach myself to play was not quite as odd as it might seem, and by the time I was 16 I was making my first tentative steps into the folk local clubs playing, among many other things, “Spanish Leather”
Even at that tender age the combination of power and simplicity in the message and the music struck me. Of course I had no idea about love and the devastation of lost love, but this song gave me insights.
Thus the plaintiveness of the lyrics combined with the simple chord sequence, poignantly plucked guitar and the searching voice was not only where I sought to take my music, but also a learning curve in terms of possible human emotions. Suddenly I could understand that eternal sadness of the one left behind and the excitement of the person leaving. Which is what I felt when my girlfriend, a year above me at school, left for university while I was still wearing the uniform and writing essays on the French Revolution and TS Eliot, while attempting to master Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.
But such worthy matters meant little to me compared with Spanish Leather. I only heard the beautiful understated guitar playing. I was there, in the Spanish mountains (which by purest chance I had visited with my parents the previous year).
Strangely it was around this time that I first heard Robert Johnson – another life transforming moment, and from the “King of the Delta Blues” album learned about the crossroads. Which is what Spanish Leather is about – the crossroads: do the lovers stay together or take separate turns? There is a moment of choice – there are moments of choice throughout our lives, and here Dylan taps into one such poignant moment.
I was really, really full of all this in my teens, and must have been an impossible teenager trying to make sense of it on my own, for most of the kids at school thought Dylan was just weird. (This was Dorset, I should point out).
And just as I learned about blues falling down like hail from Robert Johnson, so I learned about songs that could be dialogues between a man and a woman – and of course this being folk it is the woman who leaves the man. I desperately wanted to feel and take on board the sadness of “I don’t know when I’ll be coming back again.” Goodness knows why – I got enough of it in the rest of my life – why did I want to start early?
The origins of the song are clearly (in part at least) in the traditional Black Jack Davey mould, which appears on Good as I Been to You – which I’ll come back to anon. There is also a sensational version by the White Stripes: Backjack Davey
But there is a review of Dylan’s performance of Spanish Leather which says it made the review “weak in the knees”. It certainly did that for me.
And when I came on to the many Dylan songs in which he identifies himself as the man leaving, the man moving on, how I wished I could be that too – if only I could find the courage to get up and go, confident that I’d be able to make a new life in the next town I tipped up in. But I had to wait some years to do that – whereupon I ended up in Algiers for year. Oh Bob – do you have any idea what you did to the lives of impressionable kids like me?
I so wanted those stars of the darkest night, and while Dylan was able to move away from such emotions – instead developing the Songs of Disdain with 4th Street, Crawl out your Window, and of course Like a Rolling Stone – I was left there, endlessly searching for the diamonds in the deepest ocean.
Even the very opening of the song brings us the poignancy of the occasion
Oh, I’m sailin’ away my own true love
I’m sailin’ away in the morning
Is there something I can send you from across the sea
From the place that I’ll be landing?
Why must she go? What is so important that she has to leave behind her loved one? Why does life have to be like this?
It is strange now, as a man looking back on my life, how much power some of these lines still have for me. They are so simple, just as the melody is simple, and the accompaniment (once you’ve learned how to pick a guitar) is easy to do and the chords are the standard folk chords. But the power never diminishes.
The same thing I want from you today
I would want again tomorrow
One could build a whole song out of those two lines, and it would be worth hearing.
And so she goes. And forever we are left with that poignant ending
And yes, there’s something you can send back to me
Spanish boots of Spanish leather
If you want to go exploring you can do worse than try this YouTube page which goes through several songs. And for a version that is very different there’s the Forest Rangers version. It doesn’t work for me, but I know some people feel it adds something. Perhaps I have heard the power of simplicity in the original too often to go for all the extras. I am happier with Dylan himself, live at Carnegie Hall.