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