Silvio: with lyrics by Robert Hunter, a brilliant live version and strange comments.

By Tony Attwood

This review updated July 2018 with the addition of videos.  I did think about trying to adjust the review in the light of the comments made when it was first published but I can’t really see how to do this except to say even more clearly this is a song for which Dylan wrote the music not the lyrics.  But then that is what I said at the start.  As for the story that Dylan stole the lyrics while Hunter was in prison, maybe that’s right, but before I go alleging that I’d like at least to be reporting something that has been written in the mainstream.

What I still don’t know is when the song was written.  If you have any evidence for this I’d love to know.  I’ve just taken a guess in the chronology files, but added that it is just a guess.

Interestingly Heylin doesn’t list this song at all in Still on the Road.  I imagine because he thinks that writing only means writing words and not music.

The review…

Silvio is one of those rarities – a Dylan song in which the lyrics were not written by Dylan.  In this case they were written by Robert Hunter (of Grateful Dead fame).  In fact Robert Hunter has worked with Dylan on a whole series of songs – two from Down in the Groove, one on Tempest and virtually the whole of Together Through Life.

There is a comment on the internet that says that the song is dedicated to Silvio Rodriguez, a Cuban folk singer and songwriter. Silvio admired Bob for a long time and when they met he gave him a song called “la cosa esta en…”  I’ve not been able to verify all of this.

So what made Dylan accept these lyrics?

Maybe it was the opening line (remembering that this song was written for Down in the Groove, and released at a time when Dylan’s musical reputation was going nowhere fast).  Knocked Out Loaded had received very poor reviews, (as did this album) and the general opinion is that the recordings of Knocked Out come from different sessions between 1983 and 1987. This implies Dylan was having his worst ever period of Writers’ Block.

The man who could put Tambourine Man, Gates of Eden, It’s All Right Ma and It’s all over now baby blue on one side of one album, had utterly lost his way, or so it seemed to many critics.

(In fact even worse was to come – in the eyes of some critics – with the release of Dylan and the Dead, the following year – but that’s another story.)

So in the light of what happened up to the release of this album it is worth noting with interest the opening verse, sung after the “Silvio” chorus.

Stake my future on a hell of a past
Looks like tomorrow is coming on fast
Ain’t complaining ’bout what I got
Seen better times, but who has not?

Within the context that is one hell of an opening.  And yet musically it is upbeat and optimistic, with one of Dylan’s favourite chord sequences of I, Flattened 7th, IV.   This is immediately recognisable as identical to Isis.

So with this upbeat music Dylan is clearly saying, “it doesn’t really matter too much that I can’t write at the moment, I’ve really done so much before, I am allowed a bit of an off spell.”

But even if that is the message, the chord sequence gives the melody enormous free reign.  But even with all this, what on earth do we make of the chorus?

Silver and gold
Won’t buy back the beat of a heart grown cold
I gotta go
Find out something only dead men know

That last line is horrific – it sounds like a vision of suicide.  And yet surely it can’t be, not with this bouncy jolly music rushing along.  And if the melody and chords were not enough, what about the backing – all those jolly bouncy singers using words and sounds to urge the music along?

Maybe this wonderful live version corrects it; it certainly has changed over the years…

Incidentally, if you don’t like this song please do jump in this video to five minutes and then listen to the instrumental break – hear the change at 5 minutes 25 seconds and then follow it through.  Have you heard Dylan do this before?  If so please tell me, as I’d love to hear other examples.

Yes Dylan loves/loved this song he played it live 595 times between 1988 and 2004.According to Rolling Stone in 1998 alone, he performed it 99 times.

The best we can make of this combination of upbeat music and frightening last line is that the song suggests that all the money in the world can’t help the writing of better songs.  Songs come from the heart not from the cash they generate.

There is however defiance in the music and in the lyrics.  The production levels are high, with the accompanying singers in perfect timing, as Dylan sings:

If you don’t like it you can leave me alone

The song says, “I’ve still got it all…”

I can snap my fingers and require the rain
From a clear blue sky and turn it off again
I can stroke your body and relieve your pain
And charm the whistle off an evening train

And most emphatically he says, I create what I can, and when I can go no further, I can go no further.  If you don’t like what I am offering these days, then off you go. The door is open, I’m still here bouncing along with these backing singers.

I give what I got until I got no more
I take what I get until I even the score
You know I love you and furthermore
When it’s time to go you got an open door

Writing has been at a cost – these great songs don’t just pop out of my head.  They are not scribbled down so I can then nip down the street to buy a paper and a pack of cigarettes.  I give you pleasure, but it costs me dear.

I can tell you fancy, I can tell you plain
You give something up for everything you gain
Since every pleasure’s got an edge of pain
Pay for your ticket and don’t complain

Only history will tell if I really was a great singer/songwriter, or not, but I believe in myself.

One of these days and it won’t be long
Going down in the valley and sing my song
I will sing it loud and sing it strong
Let the echo decide if I was right or wrong

And so we are left with that terrible frightening last line.  In the music it is a throw away. To Dylan, well, who knows what it meant at the time.  But maybe we should just take it as a blues line, for this is where Dylan came from, and where, as we have now seen, he would end up.

Find out something only dead men know

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14 Responses to Silvio: with lyrics by Robert Hunter, a brilliant live version and strange comments.

  1. miles says:

    i think you’ve missed the part that says hunter wrote the lyrics. unless you think hunter was writing in dylan’s voice. i have always thought of “only dead men know” that he was talking about the collaboration between himself and the grateful dead universe….whatever it is, its a smoking song

  2. so something says:

    What? Your foundation for the article is fiction. Dylan took those lyrics from the house where Hunter had his notebook while hunter was in jail. Dylan left a note.
    What made him accept another’s lyrics? He took ‘um he liked ‘um so much.
    Maybe listen to Hunter sing it, too.
    PS Dylan, its a new year, come back to Colorado

  3. so something says:

    Really? You wrote a whole article on a song penned by a member (only lyricist recognized member ) of the Grateful Dead for their band. You know that right?
    You frighten and terrify too easy and obviously have a lot of time to consider lyrics. That’s great! I think you’d love the lyrics of original Dead songs. Take a look at China Cat or Dark Star maybe. Ha Ha! Dylan exposed! : )) Love Bob. Peace

  4. TonyAttwood says:

    So Something…

    You said

    You wrote a whole article on a song penned by a member (only lyricist recognized member ) of the Grateful Dead for their band. You know that right?

    Well, yes I think I did. That’s why the article starts…

    Silvio is one of those rarities – a Dylan song in which the lyrics were not written by Dylan. In this case they were written by Robert Hunter (of Grateful Dead fame)

    There are quite a few songs reviewed here that are not written by Dylan, and indeed one that was not only not written by Dylan but not even recorded by him.

  5. John Baltic says:

    LOL! It’s “find out something only Dead Heads (apparently) know!”

  6. John Minett says:

    Dylan finds magic in three chords once again. This is a song I heard long ago and it stuck in my subconscious unbeknowst to me.

    When I heard it again recently I felt its full power. If you asked Dylan, “What does this song mean?” he’d probably look at you with a dazed, but penetrating stare. “How the hell would I know,” he’d be thinking. “Maybe you can tell me.”

    Anyway it sounds great and has deep resonance. Let us all just roll on and let the future decide on the value and significance of what we’re all doing right now.

  7. Hello Tony, yes another interesting analysis of a song from Bob Dylan’s Music Box Lift the lid and join us inside to listen to every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers streaming on YouTube, Spotify, Deezer and SoundCloud now.

  8. Geoff Cater says:

    After hearing an Australian cover of Silvio on radio this morning, I was enticed to revise my knowledge of the work and ended up here.
    Firstly, the band is The Black Sorrows:

    Secondly, I was aware or the Dylan-Hunter credit, and assumed it was a co-write.
    However the story about Mr Dylan appropriating it from Hunter’s lyric book is most interesting, and not without precedence.

    wikipedia notes that there was a strong Grateful Dead influence, apart from their lyricist, and claims “Most prominent was the appearance of The Grateful Dead, who provided the album with one of the notable high spots on the album with the single “Silvio”.
    While I liked the band, I was most impressed with the back-up singers, especially the whistle-like “Oh-Ohs (sp?)” following “charm the whistle off an evening train.”
    Incidentally, wiki also reports that their was an illustrated cover by the Dead’s artist, Rick Griffin.

    If written by Hunter alone, surely the lyrics are indeed Dylanesque in tone and spirit.
    The last verse is clearly derivative of “Hard rain’s gonna fall”:
    “Going down the valley and sing my song
    Gonna sing it loud and sing it strong”
    (So tempted to pontificate at length on the incredible “One More Cup of Coffee”, which also used “the valley” image, itself famously employed by the biblical David.)

    But, it was the final line that was most impressive:
    “Let the echo decide if I was right or wrong.”
    I understand that singer’s performance will be judged not on this performance, but by its “echo”- the record of the performance?

    Finally, an extremely obscure observation:
    Echo was the name of Bob Dylan’s high-school girlfriend in Hibbing, recalled in 2004 as “my Becky Thatcher”.

    Thank you, Geoff.

  9. whalespoon says:

    I think the last line of the chorus–“Find out something only dead men know”–means something entirely different. I don’t think he’s talking suicide. I think he’s talking about trying to find out what lies ahead in the afterlife. I think perhaps he may be talking about studying what the Bible says about it–or it may be consulting something else–or both. Truth be told, only dead men really know for sure what lies ahead after death. And I agree with the earlier post that if it was not a collaborative effort lyrically, it sure is “Dylanesque” in the best sense of the word.

  10. J. O'Connell says:

    The last verse, a little like “I’ll know my song well before I start singing”?

  11. Greg Jones says:

    Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead commenting in a Rolling Stone article after Robert Hunter’s death:

    “Remember: He was writing with Bob Dylan, who appreciated his words very much. One time around 1986, Dylan and I were sitting on the couch in our studio at Front Street, rehearsing for one of the Dylan and the Dead tours. In front of us on a table were all these Hunter lyrics the Dead were trying to put to music. All of a sudden, Bob takes one of these sheets of paper, folds it up and puts it in his back pocket. I didn’t say anything. What am I going to say to the guy: “Put it back?” It’s fucking Bob Dylan. I called Hunter and said, “We were sitting there and Dylan picked up one of your songs and put it in his pocket, and I just wanted to let you know in case you hear some of your songs on his record.” And Hunter said, “No problem — it’s Bob Dylan, he can pick whatever he wants.” That song was “Silvio.””

  12. will sipsey says:

    I wrote Silvio. I wrote three verses and the chorus. Well there isn’t a bridge and there isn’t really a chorus. I was singing Silvio in Winthrop Park in Cambridge Ma. Bob asked me about the song. I didn’t recognize him. I brushed him off. He followed me into Charlie’s Kitchen. We worked on the song together pretty much cause he wouldn’t leave me alone. We had half of the end product by the time I finally recognized him. As soon as he saw that I knew it was him he bolted out the door onto Eliot St.

  13. TonyAttwood says:

    Will Sipsey, this is sadly a tale without proof or witnesses, which makes it just name calling.

  14. Judy Schillat says:

    Dead men don’t know anything. And things have changed.

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