Never Say Goodbye; never go back

by Jochen Markhorst

Sometime between 1733 and 1746 Bach writes his Piano concerto No. 5 in F minor (BWV 1056). Not for the piano, which has only recently been invented, but for harpsichord. However, the piece is usually – fortunately – performed on the piano. As with almost all of Bach’s concert works, the centerpiece is special. In this case the Largo, the majestic, melancholic resting point between the Allegro and the Presto.

Responsible for the thin wild mercury beauty is probably not the heartbreaking melody, but the continuo, the cast-iron base of cello, bass and plucked violins under the hesitant, shy and lonely piano notes. The continuo seems mainly to descend, much like M.C. Escher’s never-ending staircase (Ascending and Descending, 1960), causing the listener to keep waiting for a climax – which does not come, of course.

Despite all deceptive simplicity, it is a wildly complex challenge to write such a piece around a basso continuo – there is only a very thin line between tormenting boredom and breathtaking suspense. Perhaps the most famous example is the Adagio from Mozart’s ″Gran Partita″ (KV 361), the piece that introduces Salieri to Mozart’s genius in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, so brilliantly portrayed by actor F. Murray Abraham in Milos Forman’s film.

Secretly Salieri looks at the sheet music, and is immediately swept away:

“On the page it looked nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse. Like a rusty squeeze box. And then suddenly, high above it. An oboe. A single note, hanging there, unwavering, until a clarinet took it over, sweetened it to a phrase of such delight.”

And here too: no climax. Only, just like with Bach, regret. Regret that the piece does not go on indefinitely.

You would think that it is a popular form for pop music. A repeated lick, a catchy bass line or a remarkable drum pattern as a basso continuo, and then an improvising melody over it – without ever reaching a real climax. But alas. The fear to bore leads most artists to the decision to insert a bridge, or a short, contrasting chorus or maybe a tempo change. Peter Gabriel’s ″Solsbury Hill″, Buffalo Springfield’s ″For What It’s Worth″, ″The Day Before You Came″ from Abba…  Only a few exceptions remain steadfast. ″Tomorrow Never Knows″, and a handful of J.J. Cale songs (″The Old Man And Me″, for example), but there are not too many successful examples of catchy songs-without-a-climax.

Dylan, however, is a grandmaster in this area. ″Along All Along The Watchtower″, ″Shelter From The Storm″, ″Political World″; songs in which neither the music nor the lyrics offer a climax, but still hold up, thanks to the power of Dylan’s recital or the poetic beauty of the lyrics. Or to that promise of a denouement, that just keeps on hanging and hanging… as in ″Never Say Goodbye″.

Hidden somewhere at the end on Side Two of Planet Waves, a forgotten gem from Dylan’s catalogue shines. ″Never Say Goodbye″ has been mainly ignored since its release, is mentioned here and there without further emotion or qualification, casually dismissed as a filler and only a very few times appreciated. Dylan does not look back at the song either – in 1973 he records the song, then never performs it again. Which in itself is hardly conclusive, of course. We do know that Dylan is a remarkably poor judge of his own work. But the silence of the thousands of devout bobheads is quite odd.

The song is one of the first songs for Planet Waves. When the recordings start in November 1973, Dylan has made demo recordings of three songs months before (in June): in addition to ″Never Say Goodbye″ also ″Nobody ‘Cept You″ (which would eventually only appear on The Bootleg Series in 1991) and ″Forever Young″, the instant classic that will be released on Planet Waves in two different versions.

Initially Dylan still has a thing for ″Never Say Goodbye″. As Roger McGuinn (from The Byrds), who is in need of a Dylan song in the spring of 1973, remembers in Larry Sloman’s On The Road With Bob Dylan (1978):

“I’ve been hanging out a lot with Bob in Malibu,” Roger told us, “playing basketball, and stuff. One day, he was sitting on my couch and we were trying to write a song together and I asked him if he had anything and he said he had one that he started but he was probably gonna use it himself and he started playing “Never Say Goodbye”. He hadn’t written all the verses yet, but he had the tune. I liked it, but it was his.”

And eight months later, Dylan apparently still thinks the song strong enough to select for the new album.

The Great Silence afterwards may be due to the lyrics. Which are, indeed, perhaps a bit directionless and incoherent, and also marred by clichéd idleness. Any connection between the couplets, linear or systemic or whatever, cannot be found. And even within those verses things go wrong; breaking waves rolling over him while standing on the sand? Dreaming of iron and steel with a large, hanging bouquet of roses? Okay, there is an otherwise opaque link with the album cover. In the bottom right that hand-drawn cover promises “Cast-Iron Songs & Torch Ballads”, the bottom left says “Moonglow” and well alright, that does have some sort of lyrical connection with the first verse, and yes: the word “waves” does come along too.

Still, the Master did not just shake something out of his sleeve. McGuinn does reveal that Dylan is working on it, for one thing. And after careful consideration, an entire verse was deleted. Between verse 2 and 3 there was originally the rather Dylanesque:

Time is all I have to give
You can have it if you choose
With me you can live
Never say goodbye.

… revealing Dylan’s eternal preoccupation with Time and evoking earlier work like ″I’ll Keep It With Mine″ and ″Pledging My Time″.

And Clinton Heylin, the unofficial discographer of all Dylan songs, claims in his Revolution In The Air that Dylan deviates from his own published lyrics and actually sings you’ve changed your last name. Heylin, however, also limits himself to seeking clarification of the text. The mere mention of a frozen lake and the North wind even leads him to see “a perfect evocation of Duluth in the still of winter” in the lyrics.

My my. Well, exaggeration is an art form too.

No, the real power of this beauty from Dylan’s repertoire is this time in the music – in the basso continuo after the opening couplet, the continuo that keeps on working towards a non-existent finale.

The intro alone has been given a rather unusual attention. Rambling, an acoustic guitar rattles the first four chords, suddenly Robbie Robertson’s electric guitar jumps up, pinching the last notes and making room for a lyrical bass, somewhere in the back the piano wakes up and then the singer can start: Twilight on the frozen lake

Six years after the Big Pink, The Band is back on track for this album, and that works out very well. The Canadian quintet has been playing with Dylan for hundreds and hundreds of hours, is therefore like no other ensemble able to follow the whims of the master and may even overrule the boss in musical discussions; Dylan almost considers the multi-instrumentalists Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel as equals. The Band has never been a smooth, tight band, and not even too harmonious; rattling and grinding and crackling – but it is precisely that which harmonizes perfectly with Dylan’s singing style and way of working. The second song of the album, ″Going, Going, Gone″ is the first moment when everything, all the great qualities of both The Band and Dylan, comes together for a brief, magical moment.

The quieter but prettier sister of this song is “Never Say Goodbye”. For just under three minutes the song builds up to a climax that just doesn’t come, melodies tumble over each other, none of the five musicians plus Dylan feels responsible for something as trivial as a solid foundation or a tight rhythm – even occasional drummer Richard Manuel lets it go, after a minute of obediently tapping along – and yet, and yet: everything continues to work towards the same unknown, unattainable goal, the song runs on six legs, as it were. Music filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, as Salieri sighs in Shaffer’s Amadeus.

Covers do not exist either. Yes, a few diligent, but failed ones on YouTube, without exception by white, over-serious men in their late forties, in the living room with acoustic guitar.

No, we have to wait for Sinéad O’Connor, who like no other could elevate the romance, the unfulfillable longing in this song.

(In the next post Tony Attwood replies with his interpretation of the song.)

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  1. jeez … this was my wedding song……..
    (yes it was annoying when the DJ let the cd roll onto Wedding Song… but what can you do)
    for the record for my next wedding i chose “Is your Love In Vain?”

  2. Love your article but must comment on one point — not about Dylan, but about the movie AMADEUS. I hope that you don’t consider it to have much actual truth about Mozart in it. The movie, in fact, is a compilation of the myths about him and what actually happened to him. The movie was developed by people who know the what did happen and have tried to conceal it from the general public.

  3. Dylan’songs lyrics often refer to American history.

    Minnesota lakes like ‘Bde Maka Ska’ freeze over in winter. It’s name was changed in the 1800’s as a tribute to ‘Cast Iron’ John Calhoun, a pro-slaver.

  4. Thank you for your kind words and your remarks, Pamela. And, yes, I am of course aware of the fact that Amadeus is a work of fiction. As is Peter Shaffer, for that matter. He does stress it quite explicitly, in the postscript to his revised version of Amadeus (1985):

    “From the start we [= film director Milos Forman and author Shaffer] agreed upon one thing: we were not making an objective Life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This cannot be stressed too strongly. Obviously Amadeus on stage was never intended to be a documentary biography of the composer, and the film is even less of one.”

    I suppose he would agree with Papageno; “Die Wahrheit ist nicht immer gut, the Truth is not always good.”

    On a side note: The performance of the play in London led to a very amusing conflict with Margaret Thatcher. I incorporated that in an article about the Dylan song “Please Mrs. Henry ”, also here on Untold ( ).
    I suspect it will amuse you too.

  5. Enjoyed your article!
    Just wanted to add my take on the lyrics: “my dreams are made of iron and steel and a big bouquet of roses hanging down from the heavens to the ground.” I think this is a brilliant way of describing love. Iron and steel juxtaposed with roses captures is both the strength and vulnerability of love! Also the frozen lake as contrasted by the sand and waves is a way of conveying the passage of time and the seasons that love goes through because Love is not only soft and easily accessed like the sand and waves , but is sometimes cold and impenetrable like the frozen lake! Fantastic lyrics and music which is “ beautiful to me”!

  6. Loved this song from the start as I was falling in love with my wife to be when first playing it.

    Always heard the line “my dreams are made of iron and steel and a big bouquet of roses hanging down from the heavens to the ground” as a love punch in the gut. To me it was the male willing to be made softer by the female he was idealizing, if he could open up to this gift heaven would bestow. Flowery I know.

    And the way the word “roses” gets draged out in the recording is why Dylan’s words can only be appreciated by being heard…and never just read.

  7. Wrong?
    I don’t see why one couldn’t be standing on a sandy bottom while waves roll over you…..Dylan doesn’t sing “on the shore”….it’s a juxtaposition of the rough and the smooth.

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