by Jochen Markhorst
Melanie Coe is seventeen years old when she leaves a note on the table and runs away from home. Her parents, briefing the media, seem concerned, but indignant too. “I cannot imagine why she should run away,” her father John complains, “she has everything here … even her fur coat.”
It’s true, Melanie does not lack anything. She is doing well at school, has a wardrobe full of clothes and even her own car (an Austin 1100). A-level girl dumps car and vanishes, headlines the London Daily Mail of February 27, 1967, next to an almost full-page photo of the debutante.
Striking enough to attract Paul McCartney’s attention. “We’d seen a story in the newspaper about a young girl who’d left home and not been found,” McCartney recalls 30 years later, in the biography Many Years From Now. “That was enough to give us a story line. So I started to get the lyrics – she slips out and leaves a note and then the parents wake up – It was rather poignant.”
Poignant enough to inspire the heartbreaking “She’s Leaving Home”, one of the highlights of the album that is the best record of all time, according to Rolling Stone and to Roger Waters and to The Oxford Encyclopedia, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967).
Dylan is not a big fan. In September 1978, in the interview with Matt Damsker, he judges fairly clinically, looking back at John Wesley Harding:
“The Beatles had just released Sergeant Pepper, which I didn’t like at all, because I didn’t like… I could see that… Talk about indulgence. I thought that was a very indulgent album, though the songs on it were real good. I just didn’t think all that production was necessary.”
… and in Biograph’s booklet (1985) he even blames the entire trend for overproduction on that one Beatles album.
“Since the late sixties, maybe since Sgt Pepper on, everybody started to spend more of their time in the studio, actually making songs up and building them in the studio.”
That sounds pretty cool and pure, but Dylan’s own recording history is not entirely unstained either, of course. On The Cutting Edge, for example, we can follow how Dylan can spend hours and hours refining a song in the studio. “She’s Your Lover Now” is a good example, “Like A Rolling Stone” is a marathon, and on “Sad-Eyed Lady” Dylan himself reveals that it was only written in the studio, while the musicians were waiting for hours.
Still, he does have a point and his wonder can be felt. For Sgt. Pepper The Beatles have spent more than seven hundred hours in the studio; more than Dylan needs for his first twenty (!) studio albums. And true, all that tinkering and all those overdubs, additions and technical tricks take something away from the magic, from the pure artistry.
But: underneath, under that overproduction, the songs on Sgt, Pepper are “real good”.
One of those real good songs is “She’s Leaving Home” and apparently inspires Dylan to the theme of “Tears Of Rage”, to the jeremiade of a father who feels abandoned by his daughter.
Immediate cause seems to be, very unusual, an autobiographical fact, as mentioned in the first two lines:
We carried you in our arms On Independence Day
Shortly before this, Dylan became the father of a daughter (Anna), who admittedly was not born on Independence Day, July 4, but still only a week later, on July 11 – close enough to allow some poetic freedom.
Such a major personal event usually leads to more sugary songs. Stevie Wonder writes the lovely “Isn’t She Lovely” at the birth of Aisha, Billy Joel the safe “Lullabye (Goodnight My Little Angel)” for his Alexa Ray, Kanye West (with Paul McCartney) the sentimental “Only One” as tribute to his little daughter North, The Beatles sing the antique baby song “Ain’t She Sweet”, Jay Z’s “Glory” … it’s a long list.
Sinatra’s “Nancy (With The Laughing Face)” is also included in that category, but that is not entirely justified. Composer Jimmy Van Heusen and lyricist Johnny Burke’s had originally, in 1942, only compiled a birthday song for Burke’s wife Bessie: “Bessie With The Laughing Face”. A year later, during a birthday party at Sinatra’s for three-year-old Nancy, both men improvise in jest “Nancy With The Laughing Face”. Ol’ Blue Eyes breaks and is sobbing with emotion; he thinks the men wrote it especially for him. Embarrased, they leave it that way and when Sinatra even records the song in the studio, a few months later, they register the royalties in Nancy’s name.
Related are the songs of fathers who say goodbye to a phase of life and sing nostalgically the transition from child to adult woman. Neil Young’s “Here For You”, for example, and “I Loved Her First” from Heartland (“Girl You’ll Be A Woman Soon” should definitely not be included).
But a father / daughter song with the bitter, reproachful approach of “She’s Leaving Home” is actually quite unique, and that must have appealed to Dylan’s aversion to sentimental clichés.
Unlike The Beatles, Dylan does not opt for a narrative ballad, but for the dramatic monologue. The influence of Robert Browning, presumably. Browning’s substantive influence popping up in Dylan’s oeuvre is a constant. For the last verse of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, he borrows from Browning’s last verse of “Up at a Villa – Down in the City” (the avoiding of scandals, the wearing of sandals and the rhyme with handles). The much quoted there’s no success like failure from “Love Minus Zero” paraphrases Brownings often recurring preoccupation with success and failure (“Shall life succeeding in that it seems to fail, and a minute’s success pays the failure of years”). And the world could come to an end tonight from “I and I” can be found in “The Last Ride Together” (1855).
Not coincidentally, they are all dramatic monologues, from which Dylan draws. The poetic form, the form in which an ego addresses a fictional audience or a silent opponent, is of course not Browning’s invention, but is perfected by the Englishman. T.S. Eliot is a follower, and Dylan, who by the way will also feel a kinship with Browning’s brilliant rhyming, too.
An additional advantage for the bard who is so fond of keeping things vague (according to Dylan scholar Joan Baez), is the ambiguity that is almost ingrained in this form; the conversation partner being invisible and unknown, allows by definition the circumstances to be open to multiple explanations. The You can also be an abstraction, for example, or a population group, or a social movement, or the mirror image of the narrotor – open hunting season for enthusiastic Dylan exegetes with cryptoanalytic ambitions, at any rate.
“Tears Of Rage” is a popular object of study. “An allegory of the Vietnam experience,” Tim Riley sees, with soldiers on the beach and incapable, deceitful commanders. A song from the perspective of the Founding Fathers, about the current state of affairs in the United States, thinks Paul Williams. King Lear comes by regularly and Sid Griffin sees Jesus references in we scratched your name in the sand. In John 8, the scene with the adulterous woman, Jesus writes “something” in the sand, presumably “he who is without sin cast the first stone” – all in all a rather far-fetched and even by Dylan standards very thin reference.
The “find” in Lamentations 3: 48-51, proudly pointed out by some commentators, turns out to be just as thin:
Streams of tears flow from my eyes because my people are destroyed. My eyes will flow unceasingly, without relief, until the Lord looks down from heaven and sees. What I see brings grief to my soul because of all the women of my city.
… triggered by tears and grief, obviously. But alas: this is a Bible translation from 1978. In 1967 Dylan browses the King James Version, which does not mention tears or grief:
Mine eye runneth down with rivers of water for the destruction of the daughter of my people.
Mine eye trickleth down, and ceaseth not, without any intermission.
Till the Lord look down, and behold from heaven.
Mine eye affecteth mine heart because of all the daughters of my city.
And Greil Marcus, the man who also claims that Dylan “hysterically” shouted “You’re a liar!” at that Judas incident in Manchester (Dylan calmly sneers the words, barely raises his voice), nearly crashes at his canonization of this song and calls it, among other things, an “eerie invocation of Independence Day” – turning the holiday “into an image of betrayal and loneliness.”
The men from the first hour view it less historically or hysterically. Richard Manuel, who delivers the beautiful music to the lyrics, admits that he does not completely understand the text. Levon Helm calls it a number about a parent’s heartbreak and Robbie Robertson also knows: It’s from a parent’s point of view.
There is something to be said for that. Dylan has just had a daughter, shortly after Independence Day, has been touched by “She’s Leaving Home” and now sits down at the typewriter. Fanning out to empty fragments like the heart is filled with gold or to wait upon him hand and foot and especially the aggrieved why must I always be the thief fits Dylan’s changing understanding of art, as he will explain to John Cohen a year later:
“What I do know is that I put myself out of the songs. I’m not in the songs anymore, I’m just there singing them, and I’m not personally connected with them.”
Dylan explains this in response to “Dear Landlord”, which he writes in these same weeks, and is a credo that extends to most Basement songs.
The song acquires classical status almost immediately after The Band chooses it as the opening song for their monumental debut album Music From Big Pink (1968). The perfection of that recording scares others off; there are not that many covers – it even takes Dylan more than twenty years to play the song for the first time (June ’89 in Greece).
The members of The Band always have it on the set list. Moving added value has the rendition by composer Richard Manuel in 1985, a year before his death, recorded with Rick Danko (on his first official solo album, the posthumously released Whispering Pines: Live At The Getaway from 2002).
Joan Baez is an early bird, as early as 1968, but her a-capella arrangement has at most curiosity value. Beautiful is the live version by the Jerry Garcia Band from 1990, nice is the old-fashioned cover by Karate in the twenty-first century (on the EP In The Fishtank, 2005) and satisfying the recording by Ian & Sylvia, who have a kind of poetic right to the song (after all, three songs from Ian & Sylvia were recorded in the Basement too).
In his admirable Basement project Live At Joe’s Pub (2007), Howard Fishman opts for a minimalist, intimate approach and that one is also heartbreaking.
All covers share the melancholic, tear-jerking atmosphere of the original, but the only one that comes close to perfection is ex-Byrd Gene Clark, on his masterful album White Light from 1971 – thanks in particular to the plaintive colour of his voice, comparable to Manuel, and the Band-like interpretation of the arrangement.
Nevertheless, the “second original”, The Band’s, remains untouchable – apparently that one really cannot be improved. From the album that Roger Waters says is after Sgt. Pepper the most influential album in the history of rock ‘n roll, Music From The Big Pink – “it affected Pink Floyd deeply, deeply, deeply.”