by Jochen Markhorst
I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
Majestic is the word that often comes up in the reviews of “Not Dark Yet”, mainly due to the music, rather than the words. The lyrics are not really “majestic”. The words are dark and gloomy, the words of an old man who sees that the end is nigh, with no hope of a better world in an afterlife. The old man quotes from the Jewish Pirké Avot, the Proverbs of the Fathers (“for against your will you were created, against your will you were born, against your will you live, against your will you die”) but he does not quote the last words “and against your will you are destined to give an account before the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed be He” – precisely the words that give a life purpose, promising an afterlife. The I-person does not see that light; I just don’t see why I should even care, he doesn’t even hear a murmur or a prayer.
And in between, between that Jewish proverb and the hopelessness that is so deep that even the murmur of a prayer can no longer be heard, are the three verses that most heartbreakingly express the desolate state of the narrator.
The first two are fascinating enough. “It looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still” is a surprisingly intimate, moving way of expressing the detachment that the main character is now beginning to feel. Seen from the outside, he still seems to participate, still feel pain, fear, desire, but inside he is “standing still”, nothing touches him any more. By the way, the protagonist here seems to be close to the lieder poet Dylan:
“I’ll be playing Bob Nolan’s Tumbling Tumbleweeds, for instance, in my head constantly — while I’m driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I’m talking back, but I’m not. I’m listening to the song in my head.”
…from the interview with Robert Hilburn in 2003, six years after the recording of “Not Dark Yet”.
Robbie Robertson, who has been inspired by Dylan songs since “The Weight”, takes the image with him to the first record on which he sings autobiographical songs, to How To Become Clairvoyant from 2011. In “This Is Where I Get Off” he talks about the breakup of The Band. The song opens with:
The Earth keeps on shaking but I'm standing still The chances I'm taking against my will
Incidentally, a rather tasteful song, including a nice guitar duet with Clapton halfway.
The depressing gloom of the physical diagnosis every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb is just as unusual in song lyrics. After “Not Dark Yet” it does penetrate to the rock idiom, though. In “Letter To Myself” by the short-lived rock band Mad At Gravity from California, for example (“My mind is mute / My nerves are numb”), in a song by the Beagle Boys of Quiet Riot (“Critical Condition”), the English starlet Diana Vickers sings “I feel numb, my every nerve has lost its feeling”)… but it’s all far removed from the poetic shine and existential extinction of Dylan’s narrator. The only one who can measure up to that is the giant Vladimir Vysotsky, the Russian Bob Dylan, Russia’s greatest song artist of the twentieth century.
Vysotsky’s own “Not Dark Yet”, the masterpiece “Песня готового человека” (“The Song of a Man at His End”) from 1971, as well as similar poems by Rilke and Trakl, reveal Dylan’s artistic soul affinity with the True Greats:
И не прихватывает горло от любви,
и нервы больше не в натяжку, – хочешь – рви, –
провисли нервы, как веревки от белья,
и не волнует, кто кого, – он или я.
Love no longer grips my throat in a fit; My nerves are numb, you can rip them off, if you will; My nerves like washing lines are hanging loose, And I don’t care who it is – him or me.
The song opens with the brilliant metaphor A languid lizard crawls in my bones and elsewhere the listener is struck by Dylanesque, despondent verse fragments like Wounds do not ache, and scars do not hurt and I’m not looking for a philosopher’s stone anymore – Vysotsky’s I-person is as exhausted, beaten man as Dylan’s protagonist and the Russian has a similar talent for expressing that.
The most beautiful verse line, also the longest of the whole song, closes this trio: I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from.
It is a brilliant line, which unites song tradition, a philosophical paradox and poetry. In the mind of the walking music encyclopedia Dylan undoubtedly buzzes around the song he played in ’67 with the men of The Band in the basement of the Big Pink House; “I Forgot To Remember To Forget”, Elvis’ first country hit.
That song varies through the antithesis forget/remember on the otherwise not too revolutionary theme unforgettable love. Classics like Hoagy Carmichael’s “I Get Along Without You Very Well” (sung by the entire premier league, but Frank Sinatra’s version is inviolable – at most Chet Baker can stand next to it) and Dylan’s own “Most Of The Time” (1989, Oh Mercy), which are based on that same theme, derive their lyrical power from the reversal; the main character emphasises line after line that he doesn’t miss his ex-lover at all, but makes it increasingly clear line after line that he can’t forget her;
I've forgotten you just like I should, Of course I have, Except to hear your name, Or someone's laugh that is the same, But I've forgotten you just like I should.
The in itself already attractive paradox I’ve forgotten you (if you’ve really forgotten her, you don’t remember that you’ve forgotten her), Dylan deepens with this one line I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from. His poetic instinct tells him to avoid the word forget – that would make it an Elvis or Sinatra paraphrase in one fell swoop. Rhythmically it would fit better, though. An obvious alternative like I can’t even remember what it needed to forget has fourteen syllables, thus following the structure of the song; the other verses all have between eleven and fourteen syllables.
Dylan’s intervention stretches this verse line by 150%, which doesn’t have to be a problem for a Grand Master of phrasing, of course. The singer Dylan does tackle bigger challenges (his record being the twenty-two syllables he squeezed into one verse line of “Summer Days”: She says, “You can’t repeat the past”. I say, “You can’t? What do you mean, you can’t? Of course you can”).
Nevertheless, despite his unequaled phrasing, the musician Dylan intervenes; the slowing down of the tempo, mentioned both by producer Lanois and guitarist Duke Robillard (“the version we recorded in Miami was slowed down”) probably has a lot to do with this very line. By switching back to long, languid melody lines, the singer Dylan doesn’t have to “cram’ the line here, thus saving its shine – like a black pearl in the semi-darkness.
It is a majestic verse line.
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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