by Jochen Markhorst
Well, I’ve been to London and I’ve been to gay Paree
I’ve followed the river and I got to the sea
I’ve been down on the bottom of a world full of lies
I ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes
Sometimes my burden seems more than I can bear
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
Cole Porter wondered as early as 1953, “Who Said Gay Paree?”, next to the immortal, “It’s All Right With Me” and the classic “I Love Paris” one of the stand-out songs from the hit musical Can-Can. The link with Jacques Offenbach is obvious; Porter was an admirer and incorporated in his musical winks at the work of the great German-French composer of the nineteenth century.
Offenbach himself, ironically, has never heard his most famous work. Manuel Rosenthal (1904-2003) is the French composer and conductor whose claim to fame is a kind of Best Of: Gaîté Parisienne is a suite composed of highlights from operettas by Jacques Offenbach. Rosenthal premiered it in 1938 in Monte Carlo, and its success definitively established Offenbach’s Can-Can (originally the “Galop Infernal” from the operetta Orphée aux Enfers, 1858) as the soundtrack for Gay Paree, or as standard background music to cheerful, exuberant scenes at all.
Despite the very French concept of gaîté, the expression gay Paree seems to be of Anglo-Saxon origin, and much older than 1938. Cole Porter is looking the wrong way. In 1919 Jim Europe’s 369th Infantry Band scores a huge hit in America with the song of the returning American soldiers from World War I: “How You Gonna Keep ’em Down On The Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?”. The expression itself has turned out to be a keeper (as in The Big Lebowski, where The Dude says: “How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm once they’ve seen Karl Hungus?”), just like the naughty-meant spelling of “Paris”. In Nathanael West’s debut, The Dream Life Of Balso Snell from 1931, for example, can be read:
He claims that the only place to commit suicide is on Chekov’s grave. The Seine is also famous for suicide: “‘midst the bustle of `Gay Paree’—suicide.” “She killed herself in Paris.” There is something tragic in the very thought. French windows make it easy; all you have to do is open the window and walk out. Every window over the third floor is a door into heaven.
This in itself intriguing fragment is an exception; Balso Snell is a rather adolescent, rudderless work, by no means as successful as Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day Of The Locust, the two works that have elevated Nathanael West to the pantheon of Great American Writers. But we do know that Dylan uses Balso Snell as a source. In Chronicles, Dylan even copies almost literally from West’s novella:
I’m like an old actor mumbling Macbeth as he fumbles in the garbage can outside the theatre of his past triumphs,
… is in Chronicles paraphrased into:
The mirror had swung around and I could see the future — an old actor fumbling in garbage cans outside the theater of past triumphs.
In songs, “Gay Paree” has been a twoness since the nineteenth century. For example, “I’ve Been To Gay Paree” from 1893, “The Tips Of Gay Paree” from 1900, “Sammy In Gay Paree”, “When The Robert E. Lee Arrives In Tennessee, All The Way From Gay Paree”… in the sheet music section of the Library Of Congress there are quite a few humorous songs with the frivolous location indication.
“How You Gonna Keep ’em Down On The Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?”:
For the Gay Paree in “Not Dark Yet”, however, the inspiration comes neither from Cole Porter, nor from Nathanael West, nor from any of those pub songs. The best candidate is another antique song: “My Heart Goes Back To Dear Old Pendleton”. It’s a rather obscure song that was sung somewhere around 1910 in the saloons of Pendleton, Oregon, and is included in Norm Cohen’s anthology American Folk Songs. The opening lines inspire Dylan:
Now I’ve sailed the sea, I’ve seen gay Paree,
I’ve seen the sights of old London.
“Not Dark Yet” differs from this song, and all the others are – obviously – in poetic value; in all those songs the protagonist really, physically, goes to the French capital and then refers to it with a boyish oh-la-la-la wink. The poet Dylan, however, uses it metaphorically; the narrator has not really been to Paris, but expresses in this verse the emotional ups and downs of his life in general and of his recent love drama in particular.
The poet Dylan likes to use the topographical metaphor to express an emotional “very far” or “very much”, ever since his very first songs, actually. Initially, a quarter of a century before this London and gay Paree, he thinks from Washinton Heights to Brooklyn is quite enough (hardly an hour’s walk, from “Hard Times in New York City”), in “Down the Highway” we have to walk about 5000 km from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Statue of Liberty and the well-known simplification thereof (from the west unto the east) he uses in “I Shall Be Released”.
The search for more original variants began in the 1970s. From the heavens to the ground in “Never Say Goodbye”, from the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol in “Idiot Wind” and from Mexico to Tibet in “We Better Talk This Over” – which would be beyond the 10.000 km limit.
In “Slow Train” the poet slows down a bit (from Amsterdam to Paris), but in the different versions of “Caribbean Wind” he is back at it again; first the wind blows from Mexico to Curacao, which changes into Tokyo to the British Isles and when the song finally reaches the shore, it’s from Nassau to Mexico, so still 2000 kilometers. In “Union Sundown” Dylan then reaches the superlative: from Broadway to the Milky Way, although a less poetically inclined know-it-all will object that it actually says ‘from here to here” – after all, our earth is part of the Milky Way.
In terms of content, we shouldn’t look for anything in London and gay Paree. The metaphor stands for something like good times, bad times of ups and downs. With the archaic frivolity of gay Paree, the poet, just like with the introduction of that very earthly letter, prevents the lyrics from getting stuck in the stately, untouchable tone of the first stanza, “so lofty they sound as if they shit marble,” as Mozart says in Shaffers Amadeus.
London then bubbles up thanks to the encyclopaedic song knowledge of the poet Dylan, thanks to that “Dear Old Pendleton” and is skilfully processed; with Nobel Prize-worthy brio, the poet processes the assimilating o-o in every next line (London – followed – bottom – for nothing). These lines further express, in one lyrical direct hit after another, the weariness and disillusionment of the narrator. He has followed the river and has now reached the sea – the end, that is. He has seen the worst of the world and has no further desires – contained in the bluesy, ungrammatical double negation I ain’t looking for nothing, an echo of the I ain’t got no’s from Nina Simone’s “I Got Life”.
The stately, marble verse lines the lieder poet saves for the last verse.
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
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