By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood
For some songwriters of renown, one could imagine “Dark Eyes” being the pinnacle of their writing careers. Bob Dylan has played it eight times – those performances spread out between 1986 and 1995. Here is one of those performances, with Patti Smith
Aaron’s comment, having chosen the song for this series of articles…
I think the video really adds something to the performance, rather than just the audio, which is amazing itself. But watching the video really takes it to another level. Look at how she looks up into his eyes during the choruses, there is so much emotion in the eyes, like she can’t believe she is singing this song, at this moment with this man, there is respect certainly but, dare I say it, desire (and maybe even lust) also.
It must be a tough song to sing at the best of times, but this is just amazing, neither sets a foot wrong with the lyrics and Bob is on point with his guitar. It’s a simply sublime performance.
Moving on, or rather moving backwards, we do in fact have a video of the very first performance which is an extraordinary event in itself…
And another strange experience
For the actual version from the album you’ll need to go to Spotify and I hope you might have a moment to do that (or play your own album version if you have it to hand) because after those recordings it is helpful to refresh one’s memories
Here are the lyrics
Oh, the gentlemen are talking and the midnight moon is on the riverside They’re drinking up and walking and it is time for me to slide I live in another world where life and death are memorized Where the earth is strung with lovers’ pearls and all I see are dark eyes A cock is crowing far away and another soldier’s deep in prayer Some mother’s child has gone astray, she can’t find him anywhere But I can hear another drum beating for the dead that rise Whom nature’s beast fears as they come and all I see are dark eyes They tell me to be discreet for all intended purposes They tell me revenge is sweet and from where they stand, I’m sure it is But I feel nothing for their game where beauty goes unrecognized All I feel is heat and flame and all I see are dark eyes Oh, the French girl, she’s in paradise and a drunken man is at the wheel Hunger pays a heavy price to the falling gods of speed and steel Oh, time is short and the days are sweet and passion rules the arrow that flies A million faces at my feet but all I see are dark eyes
Summarised: the world is burning, and no one is doing anything. The lines do not connect, but that is surely the point. We are drifting into oblivion, not recognising what we have, letting it all slip
But just notice that little twist in the guitar part right at the end, after the conclusion of the final verse. There’s a skip in the step there, a walking away from the world of sadness and chaos. It’s chaos. So what?
And yet although there is direct meaning in the song we also have the lines that are, I feel, are deliberately disconnected from the rest of the song. Lines that are part of Bob’s inner thoughts, such as “They tell me to be discreet for all intended purposes.” If we took that literally it would presumably be seen as saying that there are people out there telling Bob to keep his songs obscure. I doubt that is true. I doubt anyone would ever dare tell Bob anything about what to do in his writings.
These are, I feel, disconnected lines, a drift of consciousness and subconsciousness, random thoughts, half formed ideas as he observes the world around him. It is another song we should not try to take too much meaning from, but instead just take the lyrics not as giving us a fulsome meaning, but instead as part of the sound of the song.
As ever, when contemplating what I might add to this little article I took a look at what others have said about the song, and Heylin provides something that although to my mind is inaccurate it is interesting. He speaks of a “nagging sense phrases have been strung together to create an effect, some of which are highly effective … some of which stop short.”
Yes he’s right, the phrases have been strung together, but I still think he’s missed the point: that is the point. The phrases are strung together without connection and that is just as the world is. Events strung together. The song has images that collide and coalesce in order to give an overall impression. In fact I am back to my comparison with modern art. Pointing out that the pink doesn’t really fit with the red or the blue is to miss the entire point. It is the overall effect that we should be looking at or listening to. Not the individual lines.
But still, it was rather nice to find that on doing this bit of research into the song 12 years after I wrote my first review of “Dark Eyes” on this website, I discover that review of mine turned up on Google as the second text entry, just behind the lyrics from the official Bob Dylan site. Of course that might not be the case for you, in your part of the world, but it suggests that at least in England somebody’s reading my ramblings – which is rather nice.
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But what is complete is our index to all the 604 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found, on the A to Z page. I’m proud of that; no one else has found that many songs with that much information. Elsewhere the songs are indexed by theme and by the date of composition. See for example Bob Dylan year by year.