Coming From The Heart (The Road Is Long) (Keep searching)

by Jochen Markhorst

By literary standards, the autobiography of Keith Richards, Life (2009), is perhaps outweighed by Dylan’s memoirs, but on all other fronts both works are of a comparable, compelling level.

Attractive with both rock stars are the quirky choice of words, the attention to rhythm and sound of the sentences, and in terms of content especially the common thread: the deep, unconditional, all-embracing love for music.

Richards fully recognizes that his love of music has something neurotic, something obsessive:

“You might be having a swim or screwing the old lady, but somewhere in the back of the mind, you’re thinking about this chord sequence or something related to a song. No matter what the hell’s going on. You might be getting shot at, and you’ll still be “Oh! That’s the bridge!” And there’s nothing you can do; you don’t realize it’s happening. It’s totally subconscious, unconscious or whatever. The radar is on whether you know it or not. You cannot switch it off. You hear this piece of conversation from across the room, “I just can’t stand you anymore”… That’s a song. It just flows in.”

… very similar to the words that Dylan chooses to describe how he is always picking up songs:

“A lot of times you’ll just hear things and you’ll know that these are the things that you want to put in your song. Whether you say them or not. They don’t have to be your particular thoughts. They just sound good, and somebody thinks them. Half my stuff falls along those lines. Somebody thinks them. I’m sure, when I’m singing something, that I’m not just singing it to sing it. I know that I’ve read it. Somebody’s said it. I’ve heard a voice say that. A song like Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight sort of falls into that category: I’ll take you to a mountaintop and build you a house out of stainless steel. That kind of stuff just passes by. A guy’s getting out of bed saying don’t talk to me; it’s leaving time. I didn’t originate those kinds of thoughts. I’ve felt them, but I didn’t originate them. They’re out there, so I just use them.”

(interview with Bill Flanagan, 1985)

But Richards’ excessive talent does of course not lie with the poetic part of songs, but purely on the musical level. And his genesis as a songwriter is bit more cumbersome than Dylan’s, as he describes with amusing self-mockery and frankness. For eight, nine months he and Jagger are busy trying to write an acceptable song, he tells, until with “The Last Time” in January ’65, they finally, finally have a song they dare present to the other Stones – and that song is actually not much more than a rip-off from The Staple Singers’ “This May Be The Last Time”, which then becomes memorable mainly thanks to the lick Brian Jones adds.

Before that, Richards confesses with a grin, the Glimmer Twins write horrific songs, with titles such as “We Were Falling In Love” and “So Much In Love”. Some of those misfits end up with other artists, who sometimes manage to squeeze a small hit out of it. Gene Pitney with “That Girl Belongs To Yesterday”, for example, and Lulu with “Surprise, Surprise” (with Jimmy Page on guitar). But most of the time it leads to a flop or, as Keith says sardonically: “Our songwriting had this other function of hobbling the opposition while we got paid for it.” He mentions Cliff Richard, whose impressive stream of hits comes to an end when recording a Jagger / Richards song for the first time, the actually pretty nice song “Blue Turns To Gray” – Cliff’s first single that doesn’t reach the Top 10, but gets stuck somewhere in the Top 30.

“And when the Searchers did “Take It Or Leave It,” it torpedoed them as well.”

Keef is exaggerating a bit, but not that much. Sir Cliff’s Stones excursion is his thirty-fourth single and the fifth which does not reach the top positions – but still number 15. And the next three singles in 1966 reach, as usual, the Top 10 again.

The single from The Searchers is released on April 13, 1966 (two days before Aftermath, which contains the Stones version), when The Searchers have not had a Top 10 hit for more than a year. And that last big hit, “Goodbye My Love” in February ’65, is a final outburst after the steady stream of big hits in ’63 and ’64, after super hits like “Needles And Pins”, “When You Walk In The Room”, “Love Potion No. 9” and “Sweets For My Sweet”.

So by the time of that Stones song the career of The Searchers was already on a dead end, but indeed: after this it is definitely over. “Take It Or Leave It” reaches a meagre 31st place, the next single does not go further than 48 and the nineteen singles thereafter do not reach the hit parade.

A last album, Take Me For What I’m Worth (1965) is not doing too well either, but The Searchers do not give up. With many live performances, Greatest Hits collections, a few staff changes and re-releases (the biggest hits are re-recorded in 1972, stereo and re-released with reasonable success), the Mersey beatniks of the first hour keep themselves afloat.

In 1979 the time is considered ripe for a comeback: after fifteen years the men record an album with new material again. It will not be a success, neither artistically nor commercially. Record company Sire may be blamed some – virtually no marketing, tampering with track selection and track order on different releases – but The Searchers themselves also drop the ball.

Great songwriters the chaps never have been. On this album there are only two songs of their own – apparently everything the three songwriters of the band have come up with in fifteen years. Not very surprising, by the way; their strength has always been in finding and brightening up great, unknown songs. Unpublished songs from Jackie DeShannon and obscure B-sides from The Drifters, for example.

On this untitled comeback album they do try that same strategy. “Back To The War” is a still unknown song by John Hiatt (his own version will be released two years later on Two Bit Monsters), Tom Petty’s “Lost In Your Eyes” only the real fans know, from a bootleg recording (never officially recorded by Petty), and John David, hit supplier for artists such as Status Quo, Phil Everly, Cliff Richard and Alvin Stardust, contributes two songs.

But unfortunately: fool’s gold, every one of them. They are not particularly great songs and The Searchers do not have a Philosopher’s Stone to turn it into real gold.

The exception is the Dylan/Springs song “Coming From The Heart (The Road Is Long)”.

It is the third song from the collaboration of Dylan and Helena Springs, and perhaps the best one. In any case so good that Dylan is seriously studying it, performing it live once and, given the three takes we know from the bootleg Rundown Rehearsals, for a while even deeming it good enough for a possible studio recording.

The Searchers are undoubtedly attracted by the distinct riches of this atypical Dylan song. The opening, and the couplets too, promise a gospel-like hymn. In the chorus the song turns into a soulful pop ballad and The Searchers do justice to that richness. Their cover opens in an elegant and stately way, the chorus has the shine of a pop jewel and hereafter they polish up the gospel character – first with a successful choir and finally with a steaming, dynamic coda. Granted, not Mahalia Jackson, but still.

The second take of “Coming From The Heart” on the Rundown Rehearsals bootleg is beautiful and already breathes the same gospel atmosphere that The Searchers take even farther. Elvis bass player Jerry Scheff – prominently – joins in, but guitarist Billy Cross does not venture into the fills and licks of Scotty Moore. Which is remarkable; after all, Cross is an excellent rockabilly guitarist. Here, however, he opts for tasteful soul accompaniment and ditto solo, a la Steve ‘Soul Man’ Cropper.

The third and final take is not really a take, but a recording of the only time Dylan plays the song live, on October 31, 1978 in St. Paul. The introductory words suggest that the master still has high hopes: “This is a new song that we just wrote a while back. It’s gonna be recorded, but we’ll try it out on you.”

It’s gonna be recorded”, so apparently the song is still on a to-do list. But alas, eighteen days later someone in San Diego throws a silver cross on stage and two months later Dylan has renounced the secular songs. Temporarily, fortunately. “Coming From The Heart” never returns, though.

At that one announcement in St. Paul, Dylan says “we just wrote a while back”. And here too, one initially assumes that Helena Springs contributed some lyrics – melodically it is a beautiful song and Helena may have put in her bit to that too, but the lyrics are really not too overwhelming – mostly Dylan-unworthy, frankly.

A long and winding road is a rather hackneyed cliché, especially if it has to communicate an image for a difficult phase of life. Tony Bennet’s “One For The Road”, The Beatles, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”, Ian & Sylvia’s “The French Girl” (which Dylan already sang in the Basement) … it’s only a small selection, and it is not very likely that a poet who during this period produces lyrics like “Where Are You Tonight?”, “No Time To Think” and “Slow Train” will dash off yet another long and winding road.

Not to mention awkward verses like Of all my loves you’ve been the closest / That’s ever been on my mind, or a toe-curling couplet like

Please, please give me indication
Stop and talk to me
Like a river that is flowing
My love will never cease to be

No, probably even Helena Springs thinks by now, a few decades later, matured and all: nâh.

The song has since become dusty and forgotten. There are no other covers. Maybe Keith Richards should do it, in the Elvis way, and finally learn that one Scotty Moore-lick:

“To this day there’s a Scotty Moore lick I still can’t get down and he won’t tell me. Forty-nine years it’s eluded me. He claims he can’t remember the one I’m talking about. It’s not that he won’t show me; he says, “I don’t know which one you mean.” It’s on “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone.” (…) It’s probably some simple trick. But it goes too fast, and also there’s a bunch of notes involved: which finger moves and which one doesn’t? (…) And Scotty’s a sly dog. He’s very dry. “Hey, youngster, you’ve got time to figure it out.” Every time I see him, it’s Learnt that lick yet?

The Searchers:

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Bob Dylan and Helena Springs, Searching for a way forwards

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