Dylan’s “I threw it all away”: audaciously simple from a seismic shock

by Jochen Markhorst

“There was always something about that song, that was so simple, and an audacity to this sort of simplicity to that song. But it was so… so powerful at the same time. For me, at least. I was always ragingly envious of that song.”

So said Nick Cave when asked if there is a song that he wished he had written himself. A fan could have guessed that Cave would pick “I Threw It All Away”. For over twenty years, the story has been going around that he buys a copy of Dylan’s Nashville Skyline in every city he visits, and the source of that story is Cave himself, in an interview with Andy Gill for Q magazine, May ’95:

“I constantly buy the same record over and over again: I’ve bought so many versions of Nashville Skyline – I must be keeping Dylan in… whatever that is he needs keeping in.”

And when the Australian is asked in 1997 to provide the music for the film To Have And To Hold, an Original Soundtrack is recorded with twenty original compositions and one cover: “I Threw It All Away”, sung by the legendary Scott Walker.

The former singer of the gothic punk band The Birthday Party, who releases high-quality solo albums almost every year from the 1980s, is a seasoned Dylan fan. In his recent compilation “The Sick Bag Song”, a collection of thoughts, poems and sketches that he notes on the puke bags during his many flying hours, we also find the poetic representation of the first and only encounter with his hero (Glastonbury, 1998):

Then slowly, extending from his sleeve,
A cold, white, satin hand took mine.
Hey, I like what you do, he said to me.
I like what you do, too, I replied. I nearly died.
Then his hand retracted up his sleeve,
And Bob Dylan turned and took his leave,
Disappearing back into the rain.

In an interview, he confesses to have been completely star truck, although he retells it, here too, in a somewhat romantic way:

“It was raining heavily and I was standing in the doorway of my trailer in the band enclosure, watching the water rise quicker and quicker, so that now it was running into my trailer. There was a crack of thunder, I looked up and saw a man in a hooded windcheater rowing a tiny boat across the enclosure toward me. The water is now up to my knees. The man pulls the boat in and extends a hand that has a long thumbnail. His hand in mine feels smooth and cold, but giving. The man, who is Bob Dylan, says something like, “I like your stuff,” and before I can reply, he turns the boat around and rows back to his trailer.”

Heart-warming little anecdote, although the decor, as we can see in the photo, is slightly less apocalyptic. But Dylan’s approval of Cave’s work is credible. Probably the bard is very charmed by his album Murder Ballads (1996), which contains idiosyncratic versions of “Stagger Lee” and “Henry Lee”, two age-old folk songs that are also on Dylan’s pedestal, as well as a dark, foreboding interpretation of Dylan’s own “Death Is Not The End”. The other seven songs, including the world hit “Where The Wild Roses Grow”, all tell macabre, sinister murders and massacres.

Obviously, the admired “I Threw It All Away” is far from lurid or bloody, but apart from that “audacious simplicity”, the sombre load will have touched Cave. Yet the seismic shock that Nashville Skyline causes when released is not due to these characteristics, but mainly to Dylan’s voice, a crooning, smooth country tenor, to the country content of the music and to the enormous contrast with his previous albums.

In Dylan’s catalog, those three labels are still intact, but the dismay among the fans has gradually evaporated. The crown jewel of the album, “Lay Lady Lay”, continues to score high in favourites lists and hit charts, album finale “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” penetrates the canon thanks to adaptations by top artists such as Johnny Cash, Jeff Beck and Ben E. King.   “I Threw It All Away” does not have the least advocates; apart from Nick Cave also a Mr. Costello and a George Harrison, MBE, for example.

In itself the song is lyrically little uplifting. It is, within the country tradition, a ten-a-penny jeremiad of a pining narrator, who bitterly blames himself for losing the love of his life through his own misconduct. Theme and choice of words are not essentially different from half the repertoire of Dylan’s old heroes Hank Williams or George Jones.

One scrap of Dylan’s poetic brio flashes in the lines Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand / And rivers that ran through ev’ry day, but the contrast with the lyrics of songs like “Visions Of Johanna” and “All Along The Watchtower” is overwhelming – and that contrast, this Flowers In The Dirt effect, unintentionally adds to the appeal. In addition to that audacious simplicity, the mental change catches the eye, obviously; no poisonous reproaches, no kick after she’s down, but a broken, humble first person who searches his own conscience – it definitely is a new Dylan.

The strongest pillar, however, is the music. The chord scheme plays an attractive game with the listener’s expectations, threatening to drive the melody into a ditch a few times. After the conventional accompaniment under the first two lines, Dylan the Musician suddenly takes a turn to a major chord at But I was cruel (where one would expect minor) and then takes a completely unusual detour back to the starting point, as Tony Attwood clearly demonstrates in Bob Dylan, After The Crash

This weird route is almost a guarantee for false slips in the melody, but Dylan does the job seemingly effortlessly.

In the bridge the master plays a comparable trick, in the deceptive Love is all there is. Deceptive, because the middle-eight would have been intolerably sweet in an obvious blues scheme. This musical setting, though, provides the welcome angularity.

Plenty of covers, of course – after all, it is a beautiful Dylan song. Elvis Costello’s version is a highlight of his cover album Kojak Variety (1995). Madeleine Peyroux produces beautiful, jazzy interpretations of Dylan’s work and her “I Threw It All Away” on Standing On The Rooftop is also a direct hit (2011, which incidentally also contains a chilling “Love In Vain”, from Dylan’s hero Robert Johnson ). And usual suspect Jimmy LaFave has both the blues and the country in his genes, and proves that on Trail (1999).

However, the most beautiful covers are injected with soul. One of the finest in that category comes from The Bo-Keys, a reunion-like band from Memphis that has the laudable ambition to restore the legendary Memphis sound for the 21st century. That works contagiously well, as with the cover of “I Threw It All Away” on Heartaches By The Number (2016).

The most irresistible is a lot older. Cher has culpable Dylan fiascos on her conscience, but in 1969 everything is right. The Californian with Armenian roots is indeed one of the most successful artists in pop history – she is the only artist to score a number 1 hit in six (!) consecutive decades – but in the late 1960s her career experienced a first dip. For the restart, she hires the famous producer Jerry Wexler and submits to his regime at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama. The same producer and the same studio (and the same co-producer Barry Beckett on the keys) who will help Dylan ten years later with his best-sounding album Slow Train Coming.

Chers 3614 Jackson Highway is also a minor masterpiece, but unfortunately commercially a flop. Eleven excellent covers, sparkling, soulfully arranged and an outstandingly singing Cher. Wexler is a big Dylan fan and so is Cher, so it’s no surprise that three of the eleven songs are from the Great White Wonder. Surprising still is that all three songs have been picked from the recent Nashville Skyline (also “Lay Lady Lay” and “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”) and even more astounding is the compelling impulse that the already so melancholic original gets from Beckett’s piano and from the Muscle Shoals Horns, the wind section.

At best a Dusty Springfield had surpassed it, presumably.

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