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.
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