Not Dark Yet VI – the music and the covers, part 1
by Jochen Markhorst and Tony Attwood
Despite the despondent lyrics “Not Dark Yet” is not a jeremiad, thanks to the music – and just as much to the production and arrangement of Lanois. Over a carpet of guitars, the song unrolls in a pleasantly languid cadence, the music goes up when the lyrics descend, and the key remains mostly major, so not minor.
But that does not yet explain the secret, magical power of the accompanying music. A musician like Tony Attwood can identify this magical power very well:
“Not Dark Yet is in standard 4/4 time – meaning four crotchet beats in each bar. So, you hear four beats with the heaviest accent on the first beat of each four. You are counting
1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, etc etc.
The first oddity is that the band plays the first beat, but Dylan starts singing on the second beat. That’s not unknown but still quite rare.
So if you were saying the beats when there are no words you would say
one Shadows are falling…… four one and I’ve been here all day…. four
With “falling” and “day” held on so that they go over two beats.
But then at the end of the line the band put in two more beats in the music. There are no lyrics at this point, just two extra beats.
So you have two groups (in music known as “bars”) of four beats (which have the words sung) and then one bar of two beats which is music only. This pattern continues through the whole song.
To try and explain this further here below are the opening lines with the beats written above. Obviously, every beat is of equal value, so you count them slowly at a standard pace. If you make each beat one second, that is about right. A classical musician would call this “Crotchet equals 60”, meaning 60 crotchet beats a minute, one a second; a crotchet being a standard single beat in music.
Writing this music out you would have four crotchets in each bar, except at the end of each line of lyrics the musicians play an extra bar of just two beats.
Here are the opening lines with the beats indicated – the additional two beats at the end of each line are in bold
1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2
Shadows are falling and I been here all day…
1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2
It’s too hot to sleep and time is running away
1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
And so on through the song, even in the instrumental verse.
It gives a sense of timelessness, because we cannot automatically count out the beats (unless one is used to doing this as a musician). It is a brilliant idea to give that feeling that time is just passing – without it a huge amount of impact that the song has would be lost.
The unorthodox choice to leave one verse without vocals “empty”, and thus not to fill it with a guitar solo, works excellently. Although the poet does not use words of consolation or resignation, the music lifts the whole song up to: melancholy. It is the melancholy of Rilke’s Herbsttag, the film music of Schindler’s List, the paintings of De Chirico.
It is mastery – music that goes beyond simply supporting or enhancing the poetry; as a matter of fact, it is only the music that brings the light that cannot be found in the words, giving the in itself bleak poem, a much deeper colour.
Failed covers of this work hardly exist, although this time Dylan is rarely surpassed. The notes are in the right place, apparently – even with the artists who lack the age or conviction to play this song, it remains a beautiful piece of art. Many covers rightly adopt the slow, long lines of the original, but the versions of the inevitable ukulele girls on YouTube are also fun.
Anton Fig drummed with all the Greats of the Earth. As a regular drummer of David Letterman’s house band, the CBS Orchestra, he is in the enviable position of accompanying superstars like Bruce Springsteen, James Brown and Miles Davis, but he is also a much in demand session musician. Mick Jagger, Joan Armatrading, Madonna, Joe Cocker… the list is long and dazzling.
They are not always the easiest employers, and in June 2002 journalist Robyn Flans asks Anton Fig how he survived such a notoriously demanding, eternally dissatisfied and passionate bandleader as Ray Charles.
MD: Ray Charles has a reputation for chewing up and spitting out players.
Anton: I’ve played with him on the show and at the Rock ’N’ Roll Hall Of Fame, and I’ve never had a problem. First of all, you have to watch his feet. He conducts with them. I remember the first time I played with him on the Letterman show. I couldn’t see his feet, so I actually got a camera monitor so I could.
Watch his feet. The trick will have helped Anton Fig again when he has to show up at Dylan’s, for Empire Burlesque and for Knocked Out Loaded. Dylan has the same tell.
Producer Don DeVito reveals the trick to a desperate Eric Weissberg during the bizarre, hallucinatory first recording session for Blood On The Tracks, September 16, 1974 in New York.
Until midnight Dylan overwhelms the musicians with (fragments of) “Simple Twist Of Fate”, “Call Letter Blues” (which turns into “Meet Me In The Morning” without warning at the second take), “Idiot Wind”, “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and “Tangled Up In Blue”. While listening back to one take, Dylan already plays another song right through it, he gives absolutely no clues, doesn’t even reveal in which key he’s playing (or that his guitar is in the unusual open D-tuning) or starts another song halfway through the recording.
Any other session Weissberg would have walked out, he says. But this is Dylan. “Remember, Eric,” he says to himself, “this guy’s a genius. Maybe this is how geniuses work.”
He’s being rescued by Don DeVito, the producer who already has some experience with Dylan. In his book Making Records. The Scenes Behind The Music (2007), Phil Ramone, the recording engineer on duty, devotes an entire chapter to Blood On The Tracks, and describes DeVito’s intervention:
“There were no charts and no rehearsals. The musicians had to watch Bob’s hands to figure out what key he was playing in. Don DeVito also gave them a suggestion: “To stay in the groove, you’ve got to watch his feet,” Don explained. “It’s something I learned from [producer] Bob Johnston, and that I witnessed on earlier sessions with Dylan.”
And Eric Clapton, who had similar disconcerting experiences during the Desire recording sessions, shares a comparable revelation. Clapton probably saw a kindred spirit: Slowhand himself moves feet and even the whole leg with spasm-like convulsions when he is in the groove.
The recording of Clapton’s performance of “Not Dark Yet” in the Royal Albert Hall, May 2009, nicely demonstrates this peculiarity, also because he’s playing there sitting on a kitchen chair – left foot tapping the beat, suddenly his heel swings away, the knee swings out and in extremis the entire left leg – the contrast with guitarist Andy Fairweather Low and bassist Willie Weeks, who flank him, also on kitchen chairs, is beautiful; both accompanists tap conservatively along, left foot only, with the beat.
The song’s execution is magnificent. Not substantially different from the original, which is no objection, of course. Clapton has a deep respect for the song and its author. Ever since ’99, when he accompanies his guest Bob Dylan at the Eric Clapton & Friends To Benefit Crossroads Centre Antigua concert in Madison Square Garden. Dylan sings and plays the guitar, of course, but on this evening it’s especially remarkable that the moderate guitarist Dylan takes on almost all guitar solos – while standing next to one of the world’s best blues guitarists, he fumbles through Slowhand‘s solo in the blues classic “It Takes A Lot To Laugh”. Not every note is right on spot, to put it mildly. But Clapton is a gentleman and, moreover, does have respect. He politely steps back – even at the finale “Crossroads”, the Robert Johnson monument of which Clapton has been the main curator for over thirty years, since his glory days as Cream guitarist.
No matter. The pure, boyish pleasure of both men in their fifties makes up for everything.
“Not Dark Yet” remains on Clapton’s playlist, that spring 2009 tour, and his autobiography reveals how the song is under his skin.
He talks about his childhood. His mother, who later turns out to be not his mother but his grandmother, has a deformed face, “a massive scar underneath her left cheekbone that gave the impression that a piece of her cheek had been hollowed out”. It doesn’t affect her self-awareness, Eric says, quite on the contrary:
In his song “Not Dark Yet,” Dylan wrote, “Behind every beautiful face there’s been some kind of pain.” Her suffering made her a very warm person with a deep compassion for other people’s dilemmas. She was the focus of my life for much of my upbringing.
Granted, he does not quote entirely correctly (it’s beautiful thing, not beautiful face), but certainly his mate Dylan won’t mind. Live, on stage, Eric always sings it properly. Foot-swinging, knee-twitching and leg-jerking.
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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