By Tony Attwood
In 2001, the Observer, an English Sunday paper, reviewed Down the Highway (the book not the song) and Heylin’s Bob Dylan, Behind the Shades: Take Two and memorably said,
“Neither author, however, can explain just why Dylan, having gained control of his catalogue, should choose to let ‘The Times They Are a Changing’ become an advertising jingle for both the Bank of Montreal and the accountancy firm, Coopers and Lybrand. Sheer contrariness seems to be the best explanation, together with Dylan’s distaste for the ‘Voice of a Generation’ tag foisted on him during his protest years.”
I suddenly remembered this comment when thinking about “Down the Highway” (the song). Dylan apparently recorded this in one take, insisted that it went on the album, and then never played it in concert. Sheer contrariness?
No one really seems to have commented on it much either, despite Howard Sounes’ book being named after it. But like every Dylan song it is far more worthy of comment than any chit-chat about who he was sleeping with at the time.
Of course in concert a song like this would be an absolute show ender. It is bleak in its unforgiving open chord tuning on the guitar and playing style that harks back to the blues masters of the 1930s. But then the sheer contrariness of Dylan’s nature suggests he might just do it one day. If he ever does, I’ll suspect one of the people close to Bob might have pointed out this review!!!
So I thought of reviewing it, not just to be contrary myself, but because no one much seems to have written too much about the song. And having given this series of reviews the title “Untold Dylan” I have been trying to live up to that name.
Besides, having been writing so much of late about the songs of leaving – the lover who has moved on, or been left, this one is the most powerful all-encompassing song of the all.
In this adventure she’s gone to Italy, he’s following along, and as we know from all the journalism, Dylan actually did do this, and got there only to find she’d moved on just as he landed. It would make a nice bleak film – preferably in black and white.
But what comes across in this simple blues which is so exquisitely performed, is the utter bleakness of existence. Dylan does bleakness quite a lot, but mostly because he (or the person portrayed in the song) has moved on. Here it is different. He’s tailing along behind, and for that the sheer emptiness of the song’s feeling is perfect.
Imagine this song sung as a standard jaunty 12 bar blues. It would work, but it wouldn’t have the feeling and depth and bleakness. It wouldn’t cry out in the dark, like this song does.
I don’t suggest you play it too often, but just one or twice to remind yourself of exactly what Dylan really can do.
Well, I’m walkin’ down the highway
With my suitcase in my hand
Yes, I’m walkin’ down the highway
With my suitcase in my hand
Lord, I really miss my baby
She’s in some far-off land
That really says it all…. all except for one twist, the twist that I suspect many people who have heard the song a number of times, remembers…
Well, the ocean took my baby
My baby stole my heart from me
Yes, the ocean took my baby
My baby took my heart from me
She packed it all up in a suitcase
Lord, she took it away to Italy, Italy
It is that double take of Italy. It isn’t “Italy – I mean Italy of all places”. Not at all. It is “Italy, ohhhhhh, Italy.” As if she is always talking about Italy, she is more devoted to Italy than she is to me. But whatever it is about Italy I am going to have to understand what it is, and then go there, and somehow try to get her back.
He’s far beyond any arguing. Far beyond any demands. He will go anywhere do anything.
Yes, I’m a-walkin’ down your highway
Just as far as my eyes can see
From the Golden Gate Bridge
All the way to the Statue of Liberty
This is the bleak, bleak world. It doesn’t get more bleak than this. This is “Beyond here lies nothing” in the sense that Ovid actually meant it.
Like I say, don’t go there too often.