Never Say Goodbye: cliché or genius? The battle of the critics

By Tony Attwood

If you are a regular reader of Untold Dylan, you will probably have realised that we have two regular reviewers working on the site: Jochen Markhorst and myself.   We don’t compare notes, we’ve never met (what with living in different countries and over 400 miles apart), we’ve never spoken on the phone, but aside from Jochen sending me each article, we do correspond on whatever issues turn up.

However, I don’t think we have ever completely disagreed with each other over a Dylan song… until now.   For Jochen recently provided me with his review of “Never Say Goodbye,” (which we published yesterday) and it turned out that our opinions on this one song, rather obscure as it is, and never publically performed by Dylan song, were utterly different from each other.

In correspondence with Jochen, I mentioned the song’s utter simplicity and beauty, to which Jochen replied, “I’d say a line like “You’re beautiful beyond words” is a worn-out cliché in every language I know. And in itself there is nothing wrong with the occasional cliché (being so true is what makes it a cliché, after all), but this particular one is all the more annoying when a poet uses it.”

Now I wouldn’t dare try to counter Jochen’s insights when it comes to the literary merits of songs; his knowledge of the origins and antecedents of forms and phrases in a multiplicity of languages and cultures, is way beyond mine.  OK he has an advantage over me being multi-lingual, but even so – he’s still way beyond me in this field.

But there is one area that I suspect I do bring something to the table that Jochen can’t, and that is on the issue of musical form.

And for once in a Dylan song, I think that fully to appreciate this very obscure piece which Dylan has never once played in public, we really do need to know about the music and the lyrics.

So to consider…

You’re beautiful beyond words
You’re beautiful to me
You can make me cry
Never say goodbye.

Jochen argued: ‘Isn’t this precisely why we invented poets: to capture in words what to us, mere mortals, is beyond words? If then the poet on duty comes up with: “sorry, this is beyond words”, my thought is: unfit for the job.’

Now my reply is that the simplicity and beauty of the line – and indeed of that whole verse – is created by the music, and the music here is very unusual, not just for Dylan, but for all of popular music and the folk music that preceded it.  Changing keys during a song is incredibly unusual, not just for Dylan, but throughout the genre.

This is the exact opposite of Dylan’s normal approach.  Take a song like “Times they are a-changing” – it is the lyrics that make the song, not the melody which uses just five notes, and not the accompaniment which uses just two chords.  It is the lyrics that grabbed the attention.

What’s more I think I am influenced particularly by the fact (which I stupidly didn’t go into in my original review of the song, what with my being so interested about what Bob was doing with the music) that I don’t hear this song as being a paean to a woman at all, as I think Jochen has done, but a celebration of a beautiful landscape.  Put that unusual choice of lyrics with the very unexpected approach to the accompaniment and we have a unique Dylan song.

However to be fair, it is not the only time Bob has done this musically – and curiously the one other time I immediately think of, where he does it so clearly and dramatically is also in a song which is (at least in part) about the environment: Inside Out.

But let’s leave the music – for I did try to deal with that in my original review of the song

Instead, consider these words, and consider them, if you will, from the perspective of a man utterly entranced by a most amazing and beautiful unspoiled environment…

And if you can, play the song at the same time (hopefully the link above will continue to work long enough for you to do this – if not you’ll need to dig out your copy of the album) that will be even better…

Twilight on the frozen lake
North wind about to break
On footprints in the snow
Silence down below

You’re beautiful beyond words
You’re beautiful to me
You can make me cry
Never say goodbye

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

My dreams are made of iron and steel
With a big bouquet
Of roses hanging down
From the heavens to the ground

The crashing waves roll over me
As I stand upon the sand
Wait for you to come
And grab hold of my hand

Oh, baby, baby, baby blue
You’ll change your last name, too
You’ve turned your hair to brown
Love to see it hangin’ down

That last verse could of course feel very much like it was written to a woman, although it could reflect the changing of the seasons.  But changing the last name, in western culture, suggests marriage, and of course if we are already thinking of a man’s love song to a woman there we are; it is a song proposing marriage.  But it is possible that maybe this lake had a different name at one time and it was subsequently changed.  (Now that would be a clincher for my argument).

Late additional note from Tony:  Larry has found a lake that has had its modern American name (that of a slaver) changed back to its original name.  I think that adds a trifle to my argument.   See Larry’s comments below.

And, I would argue, the crashing waves rolling over me is what we get when we listen to the music with its changing of keys, and the confusion that results.  Indeed in my original review I mentioned how the highly eminent dylanchords website gave up on deciphering the music when we get to “grab hold of my hand” and simply wrote “chaos” to describe what the musicians were up to.  (Actually I think that is rather harsh – but these guys are the masters of decoding Dylan’s music, so I’ll not argue the point).

And… the book “Bob Dylan all the songs” says seven takes were made of this song, and one wonders why Dylan chose this one song to work through so many times.  Surely they couldn’t all have screwed up the modulations…. unless there is a real reason for the “chaos”.  But apparently re-work it over and over they did.  So that “chaos” section must be what they wanted.

Of course, I don’t know if I am right, or if Jochen is right, or if both of us are wrong.  But I do love the song, and I do find that what happens in the music transforms the lyrics from what could well be described a worn-out cliché into something utterly remarkable and inspiring.

What else is on the site

You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to all the 594 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 2000 active members.  (Try imagining a place where it is always safe and warm).  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.

On the other hand if you would like to write for this website, please do drop me a line with details of your idea, or if you prefer, a whole article.  Email Tony@schools.co.uk

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, links back to our reviews

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27 Responses to Never Say Goodbye: cliché or genius? The battle of the critics

  1. hans altena says:

    It is one of those songs you can’t exactly put your finger on, but it sounds heartfelt to me and is surely also inspired by the landscape, old feelings and the connection to it, and the playing here is beautiful, yet the lyrics could have evolved into something more… it is on the brink of those abstract painting with words that flowers on Blood on the Tracks… I enjoy both what you and Jochen say about it… Anyway, I have encountered many people who have a soft spot for this song and yet are a bit at a loss when it comes to the words, altough the description of iron and steel and the bouquet hit a deep vein for me… And once I stared into the eyes of my first girl when that was sung and it hit home for her too.

  2. Larry fyffe says:

    Having written an occasional piece for Untold, might I interject that Jochen is right from his side, Attwood from his – the music dominates some of the time; lyrics at other times; they mesh quite together at other times.

    And them thar foreigners don’t seem to know that Minnesota lawmakers changed the name of Lake Calhoune to Lake Bde Maka Ska though it’s been challenged in the courts.

  3. Larry fyffe says:

    Calhoun, that is….it freezes over in the wintertime.

  4. Larry fyffe says:

    To be more accurate the name was changed back to its original ‘Indian’ name, having been changed to the name of the pro-slaver Calhoun in the 1800’s.

  5. Larry fyffe says:

    He was nicknamed ‘Cast-Iron Calhoun’.

  6. Larry fyffe says:

    And Calhoun was known for his long dark, though not ‘Indian black’, hair.

  7. TonyAttwood says:

    OK I’ll go with this as a clincher – lakes can and do have their last names changed, just like it says in the song.

  8. Jeremy Stone says:

    When I first heard this song many years ago it struck me as incredibly lovely. as it does today. There is s mystery here that is aptly conveyed by both music and lyrics (cliches and all).

  9. PC says:

    Aargh ! My dear Holmes and Watson, what is it that transforms a few simple words and a few simple chords into an emotive, rich and magnetic song?

  10. Ron Loftus says:

    I am going to weigh in on the positive side of “Never Say Goodbye.” It is a good song if not a great one. The lyrics feel fragmentary–a little scattered–but as with many Dylan songs, there are some very powerful gems in there that can take us deep. For me, they appear in this verse:

    My dreams are made of iron and steel
    With a big bouquet
    Of roses hanging down
    From the heavens to the ground

    I have always heard these lyrics as deeply revelatory. The singer acknowledges that at his core, he is plagued by a dark side. His dreams are dark, cold, made up of iron and steel. But he also reveals that beneath all this darkness, there remains a capacity for love and human warmth as captured in the image of the “bouquet of roses hanging down, from the heavens to the ground.” In a flash, then, we are reminded of that link between heaven and earth which, in turn, offers up the possibility of transcendence. It’s simple but therein lies the song’s power and beauty.

  11. Tom Kasmir says:

    At the risk of repeating myself as I left this comment in the Jochen review yesterday, I will repeat it only because this song has always affected me deeply:

    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.

  12. Trevor Charles Osborne says:

    I Love the song . its a real unusual but beautiful melody from Dylan with a great vocal.I like the words as well ,Its a real hidden gem.

  13. Henry Christner says:

    You changed your last name, too…

    Not only the lake, but Bob Zimmerman, too.

  14. William Routhier says:

    The thing here is, the mistake people keep making with Dylan, except Prof Ricks, maybe, is embedded n Mr Jochen’s quote below. “And in itself there is nothing wrong with the occasional cliché (being so true is what makes it a cliché, after all), but this particular one is all the more annoying when a poet uses it.” Never Say Goodbye isn’t a poem. the first verse is very beautifully poetic, but songs are often riddled with cliches. The inability of academia to figure this out is kind of mind-blowing to me. Dylan’s songs use bad grammar, ‘The wheel’s still in spin” disconnected thoughts, ramblings that don’t tie up and some poetic passages. And some cliches. You can’t compare a Dylan song, any Dylan song, to a poem by, for instance, Frost or Dickinson, Charles Simic. There’s a precision in poetry that isn’t in songs. Songs have to scan, vowel sounds are important, hooks are important, direct messages, like, ‘you’re beautiful to me’ work in a song, which is sung to someone, directly. Songs are different. Try singing this, and see how it goes over.

    She walks in beauty, like the night
    Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
    And all that’s best of dark and bright
    Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
    Thus mellowed to that tender light
    Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

  15. TonyAttwood says:

    William Routhier, I think that is a little unfair, as the site works on the basis that by and large Jochen analyses songs from a literary point of view and I review them as a musician. That’s the way we do it, and that was made clear when we decided to have the two articles (his and mine) published one after the other – which we have not done before.

  16. wendy says:

    Ok- nobody mentioned this- Listen to the clip posted above of the song and follow along with the words posted above … He never sings the verse about -Time is all I have to give….? why?

  17. Larry fyffe says:

    For one, Canadian composer Danna has set the Byron verse quoted above to music, sung by Sissel.

  18. Larry fyffe says:

    Many of Dickinson’s poems are set to music from chamber to rock (Efat)

  19. Larry fyffe says:

    Frost’s poems are set to choir music by Thompson

    Emerson, Lake, And Palmer sing Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’

  20. Robert Ford says:

    William, have a listen to Byron’s ‘She Walks in Beauty’ performed by the Medieval Baebes. However, the lyric really needs the masterly vocal skills of Bob Dylan to truly register it’s power. Dylan’s musical history, of course, has many similar poetic songs from ‘Hard Rain’ through to ‘Scarlet Town’ in which the genius of Dylan’s singing elevates the lyrics to an emotional level felt by millions of people throughout the world despite different languages ,culture, etc.

  21. Larry fyffe says:

    And there’s Judy Collins singing Yeats’ “Song Of The Wandering Aengus”

    Surely an influence on Dylan’s “You Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”

  22. William Routhier says:

    All those examples given sound like poems set to a melody. Which is different than something written as a song. That was my only point. Songs and poems are different. To treat them the same is a mistake, and causes these sorts of conflicting ideas. Consideration has to be given for the art of the song, which sometimes takes precedent over the poetic aspect. ‘How does it feel?’ read off a page has nowhere near the emotional aspect of Dylan singing it. One thing takes place in the mind of the reader. Another takes place in the ears and mind of the listener. No matter how much one protests, they are not and never will be the same thing. Dylan’s lyrics rise to poetry in some cases, in others, no. That might not be Dylan’s shortcoming – rather, his song craft.

  23. William Routhier says:

    Here’s an example of what I’m talking about that you can see at work in Dylan’s writing. Blind Willie McTell is one of the songs which reads really nicely on the page as a poem. Now, in the original recording, the chorus went, “And I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.” Now, on the page, I would say that this is a stronger line than Dylan’s subsequent changing of it. Actually, it was The Band, likely Levon Helm, who changed it to “And I know one thing, nobody can sing the blues like blind Will McTell.” The Band changed it because it was hookier, more of a song craft thing, with the internal rhyme of ‘thing’ and ‘sing.’ Dylan picked up on that, now he always sings it that way live and he had it changed to that in the official lyrics on Bobdylan.com. It’s a small example, but an example of how song craft takes charge in the end. Why? Because songs are performed, not read.

  24. William Routhier says:

    Sorry, I wrote the second version of the line wrong. It’s “And I can tell you one thing, nobody can sing…”

  25. Robert Ford says:

    It is interesting to note though that Bob Dylan has been seen as a poet. I remember one interview on US tv with Ginsberg: Interviewer “Allen Ginsberg, America’s greatest living poet”. Ginsberg ” No, no that’s Bob Dylan’. Andrew Motion, former Poet Laureate, called ‘ Visions of Johanna’ the greatest ever love lyric. Anne Waldman refers to Dylan’s ongoing influence. He is held in such high regard by poets in other languages including Russian and Indian. John Cooper Clarke to this day looks like 1966 Dylan. Phillip Larkin’s lovely tribute ” that cawing, derisive voice ” perhaps best sums up a voice without restraint.

  26. PC says:

    “Songs are performed, not read”. Exactly. Dylan’s voice and music is vital for the lyrics to have their full impact. Bob Dylan is first and foremost a performer. A great performer of songs.

  27. Robert Ford says:

    Wendy, no one knows why he did not sing the omitted verse but I would guess that it was because it did not FEEL right to him. Bob Dylan’s songs for me are about the feelings they display and the feelings they stir in my body. Many of his finest songs have few words such as this wonderful song and yet the emotion that his voice, guitar and his most sensitive backing band create in the confines of a recording studio is most remarkable.

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