One For The Road: One for the song: One for the dance

by Jochen Markhorst

Even the German national anthem, Das Lied der Deutschen, is set up as a drinking song. The original text contained also a toast (“Stoßet an und ruft einstimmig: Hoch das deutsche Vaterland! – clink glasses and call with one voice: Long live the German fatherland!”), in the final version only the hymn on German wine is maintained, in the second verse:

Deutsche Frauen, deutsche Treue,
Deutscher Wein und deutscher Sang
Sollen in der Welt behalten
Ihren alten schönen Klang

(German women, German loyalty,
German wine and German song
Should keep in the world
Their old beautiful sound)

The Deutschlandlied was written in 1841, but drinking songs are of all times, of course. Hundreds of alcohol odes from the Middle Ages have survived, the Carmina Burana contains four, and the Bible does not say it in so many words, but undoubtedly a suitable song was struck up at the Wedding in Cana, following Jesus’ alcoholic first of signs, turning water into wine.

Dylan is not averse to it either, not to booze, nor to a song about it. “Moonshiner”, “Bourbon Street”, “Copper Kettle” … before launching his own whiskey brand Heaven’s Door in 2018, he has sung beer, whiskey and wine, consumption and production, dozens of times. Rarely as one-dimensional as in the majority of traditional drinking songs (even “Please Mrs. Henry” is still somewhat layered), which is equally laudable as understandable – no matter how corny his mood, song poet Dylan usually does maintain some poetic ambition.

More attractive, because more poetic and more melancholic, is a subcategory of the jolly pub song: the “one-last-drink” songs, the songs in which the protagonist goes back home again, in which the narrator looks back on yet another lost evening in a lost life, or with mild sadness indulges in sentimental reflections.

On the European mainland, the German song “Gute Nacht Freunde” (Reinhard Mey, 1972) is the benchmark in that department.

In the Netherlands, Radio 1 closes every day at midnight with this song since 1976, it is translated into French (“Bonsoir mes amis”), it wins prizes in France, Poland and Germany and half of Europe can sing along the chorus:

Gute Nacht, Freunde
Es wird Zeit für mich zu geh’n
Was ich noch zu sagen hätte
Dauert eine Zigarette
Und ein letztes Glas im Steh’n

(Goodnight friends
It’s time for me to go
What I still would like to say
Takes one cigarette
And one last glass while standing)
 

In the Anglo-Saxon world, Tom Waits has become the king of elegant drinking songs at all, but most of all: he writes the perhaps most beautiful “one-last-drink” song of the twentieth century: “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You”:

Now it’s closing time, the music’s fading out
Last call for drinks, I’ll have another stout
Well I turn around to look at you
You’re nowhere to be found
I search the place for your lost face
Guess I’ll have another round
And I think that I just fell in love with you

With this Waits displaces the Sinatra monument “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)”, the song that suddenly pops up, among all those other melodies, tunes, masterpieces and sketches the bard just plucks from the air, that exceptional summer of ’67 in Woodstock.

It is actually a Fred Astaire song* (from The Sky’s The Limit movie, 1943) but Sinatra has confiscated the song – the legend has recorded it six times over six decades. Dylan has undoubtedly Ol ’Blue Eyes’ third recording under the skin, the recording for the classic album Sings For Only The Lonely (1958). On that record is one of Dylan’s all-time favorites, “Ebb Tide”, the song he distinguishes in Chronicles:

“At Ray’s, where there weren’t many folk records, I used to play the phenomenal “Ebb Tide” by Frank Sinatra a lot and it had never failed to fill me with awe. The lyrics were so mystifying and stupendous. When Frank sang that song, I could hear everything in his voice — death, God and the universe, everything.”

The song is halfway Side 2. “One For My Baby” closes the same side. This song, written by the legendary duo Arlen and Mercer, is of course incomparable with Dylan’s cellar frippery. To begin with, Harold Arlen’s music is infinitely richer and more original. “Another typical Arlen tapeworm,” as the composer himself says about it (meaning it is longer than the usual 32 bar length). After which he gives, very gallantly, all credits to copywriter Johnny Mercer: “Johnny took it and wrote it exactly the way it fell. Not only is it long – forty-eight bars – but it also changes key. Johnny made it work.”
The song indeed has, in the words of writer John O’Hara, that “metropolitan melancholic beauty.”

Mercer truly has an exceptional gift for writing song lyrics, which is also recognized by a man who does have an insight into this particular skill, by Dylan. On the same page in Chronicles on which he honours “Ebb Tide”, he also raves about “Moon River”: “My favorite of all the new ones was Moon River. I could sing that in my sleep”- again lyrics by Johnny Mercer.

On his “Sinatra albums” in the twenty-first century, Dylan sings seven Mercer songs, his own songs are coloured with Mercer fragments from songs such as “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” (in “Santa Fe”) and “Fools Rush In” (in “Jokerman”) and here the bard improvises around that one patch from “One For My Baby”: and one more for the road.

Of all Mercer songs, this specific song seems to resonate most often with Dylan. He literally quotes set ’em up Joe in “Scarlet Town”, the code of the road from “Where Are You Tonight?” seems like an echo of the fourth verse (“But you gotta be true to your code / So make it one for my baby / And one more for the road”) and alone the opening lines

It’s quarter to three
There’s no one in the place ‘cept you and me

… provide both the title for “Nobody ‘Cept You” and the exact time and scenery for “Sign Language” (“In a small cafe / At a quarter to three”), the song in which the protagonist also throws a quarter in the jukebox, just like the narrator in “One For My Baby”.

So, including this Basement trifle, there are as many as five Dylan songs that pick cherries from this Mercer text – and with some tolerance there are still more resonances to be traced.

And a trifle it is. In any case compared to the impact of Sinatra song; used in dozens of films and television series, the title now has proverb status and it has been covered throughout the entire Premier League – from Billie Holiday and Marlene Dietrich to Belafonte and Perry Como, from Ella Fitzgerald and Etta James to Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye and Lou Reed, from Bette Midler and Iggy Pop to Robbie Williams, Willie Nelson and Nana Mouskouri. Actually, only from Dylan himself no recording or performance is known – but then again, we do have this homage.

The music is great. Simple and, especially thanks to Robbie Robertson’s accompaniment and the Band’s discipline, even rather elegant. Rick Danko’s plaintive second voice is brilliant, Garth Hudson’s organ playing heightens the detached wee small hour atmosphere – one would almost be inclined to believe it was actually recorded at a quarter to three in the morning.

Less successful are the lyrics. The four-line couplets mainly consist of filler lyrics, not overly coherent country clichés of a lonely, lovesick boozer. I cry alone at night, for example, and This bottle is dried up too. The highly esteemed Dylanologist Eyolf Østrem hears one original, Dylan worthy flash, in the third verse: I can’t see no God on the moon. His ears deceive him, unfortunately – wishful hearing, presumably – but more obvious and actually understandable is: I can’t see no God anymore.

Instinctively, Dylan seems to be searching for an aaab rhyme scheme while singing. That apparently hinders creativity, leading to verses like

I cry alone at night
Please tell me it’s only night
And she’s calling me back at night
And she’s already home

… whereof the master himself, too, will admit that it cannot stand in the shadow of the poetic power of any verse from Mercer’s pièce de résistance, like:

You’d never know it
But buddy I’m a kind of poet
And I’ve got a lot of things I want to say
And if I’m gloomy, please listen to me
‘Til it’s all, all talked away

“Know it – poet!” And with that, the counter reaches 6: Yippee! I’m a poet, and I know it from “I Shall Be Free 10″… “One For My Baby” is really, really deep in Dylan’s system.


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