Shot of Love, from the father of the blues to those Devilish Double Dylans

Shot Of Love (1981)

by Jochen Markhorst

Chaos is a 2005 American crime thriller that does not make it to the American cinemas and is only distributed direct-to-DVD in 2008. Strange; it is a layered action film with a surprisingly intelligent plot and superior acting by Wesley Snipes as the bad guy.

The lead role is for English action hero Jason Statham, who plays Quentin Conners, a suspended detective from the Seattle PD – unjustly suspended, but he’ll now have his glorious revenge, of course.

Statham’s English background and grammar school past has, obviously, no connection whatsoever with the discarded policeman on the American West Coast he portrays in this film, but is still revealed, after forty minutes in the story. He has caught Gina, the girlfriend of one of the fugitive thugs, and sits down with her at the police station, in the interrogation room.

Det. Conners: This isn’t possession or solicitation, Gina. This is felony murder one. If you’re protecting him, you’d get life.
Gina Lopez: I didn’t do nothing.
Det. Conners: It’s “I didn’t do anything.” “Didn’t do nothing” is a double negative, infers the positive. [to himself] The grammar in this country’s terrible.

Statham is not really a great actor, but the tired disdain with which he speaks these words is very convincing. And then Gina makes only one mistake. Imagine how depressed Jason would have been if director Tony Giglio had chosen Dylan’s “Shot Of Love” for the soundtrack:

I don’t need no alibi when I’m spending time with you
I’ve heard all of them rumors and you have heard ’em too
Don’t show me no picture show or give me no book to read
It don’t satisfy the hurt inside nor the habit that it feeds

Terrible grammar, though we don’t have to doubt Dylan’s language skills. The double negatives the song poet here uses as a stylistic figure, as a language trick to place the song in a tradition. In this case in the blues tradition, the same tradition that prevents The Stones from singing “I Can’t Get Any Satisfaction” and has Pink Floyd singing We don’t need no education – and a very young Dylan Ain’t gonna grieve no more, an adult Dylan when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose and a very old Dylan I ain’t no false prophet.

Going back, all of them, to the Big Bang of Blues, to W. C. Handy and his “jazzman’s Hamlet,” to “St. Louis Blues.”

W.C. Handy writes the song in 1914 and it is still played by everyone in the jazz and blues world today. The version inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame in 1993 is Bessie Smith’s version with Louis Armstrong on trumpet from 1925:

Now dat gypsy tole her, don't you wear no black
She done tole her, don't you wear no black
Go to Saint Louis, you can win him back

In Chapter 9 (“St. Louis Blues and Solvent Bank”) of his superb, compelling autobiography Father Of The Blues (1941) Handy describes the song’s impact on the dance floor and on his band, but especially on himself:

“Well, they say that life begins at forty – I wouldn’t know – but I was forty the year St. Louis Blues was composed, and ever since then my life has, in one sense at least, revolved around that composition.”

This is true on several fronts; the actual Big Bang of the Blues, “Memphis Blues”, Handy may have written before this song, but the musical genius is not yet as gifted on a business level and sells the rights for $100 – together with Decca Records’ rejection of The Beatles in 1962 one of the bigger blunders of the twentieth century. But W.C. learns from it and so the next hit, “St. Louis Blues”, is and remains his. It will be a goose that lays a golden egg every year for the rest of his life. Still in his dying year 1958, forty-two years after he wrote the song, $25,000 in royalties is transferred to him for this song alone (the equivalent of over two hundred grand today).

Louis Armstrong & Bessie Smith – St. Louis Blues (1954 version)

By chance, Dylan is forty too, when he writes a “composition around which ever since my life revolves”, when he writes “Shot Of Love”; he apparently experiences a similar semi-superstitious, age-related insight as Handy. The famous words from the interview with Martin Killer (New Musical Express, 1983) in any case bear witness to an identical, all-decisive weight:

“To those who care now where Bob Dylan is at, they should listen to “Shot Of Love” off the Shot Of Love album. It’s my most perfect song. It defines where I am at spiritually, musically, romantically and whatever else. It shows where my sympathies lie. No need to wonder if I’m this or that. I’m not hiding anything. It’s all there in that one song.”

“My most perfect song” … very big words. Well alright, should they have been spoken by, say, a Justin Bieber or a Beyoncé, you could still go along with them. But they are spoken by Bob Dylan, on July 5, 1983, at a time in art history when “Visions Of Johanna”, “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Tangled Up In Blue” have long since been written, not to mention the hundred other Dylan songs that any neutral music critic will value higher than “Shot Of Love”. July 1983… two months after he recorded “Blind Willie McTell”, “Foot Of Pride” and “Jokerman”, for example.

Yeah well. “I’ve been asked: ‘So how come you’re such a bad judge of your material?’” Dylan recalls, clearly disagreeing with the hidden premise therein, during the press conference in Rome, 2001 – but he still can’t think of an answer to the suggestive question he himself poses there.

A second line to W.C. Handy, a line that does hold, is his sense of language and the importance he attributes to it. The right words are decisive, but, just as with Dylan, not so much for reasons of content – no, for the “colour”, for the sound of the song the right words are decisive;

“The question of language was a very real problem at the time I wrote St. Louis Blues. Negro intellectuals were turning from dialect in poetry as employed by Paul Lawrence Dunbar. I couldn’t follow them, for I felt then, as I feel now, that certain words of Negro dialect are more musical and more expressive than pure English.”

Handy illustrates his conviction with an amusing, but also somewhat abrasive anecdote from 1915. An unnamed “white musician” openly doubts Handy’s ability to read music, let alone write. “Name any classical melody,” Handy answers, “and I’ll give it a Negro setting.” The white musician challenges him with Schubert’s “Serenade” (the English name for Ständchen, D. 889), which Handy promptly edits into “Shoeboot’s Serenade”, with lyrics to it:

I woke up this morning with the Blues all ’round my bed
Thinking about what you, my baby, said.
Do say the word and give my poor heart ease,
The Blues ain’t nothing but a fatal heart disease;
I’m going to leave this town just to wear you off my mind;
Can’t sleep for dreaming, can’t laugh for crying.
So in the moonlight, Shoeboot played
This little Serenade.

… with deliberate grammatical and syntactic errors, but bursting with astonishing melodic and musical discoveries – like the opening, which will become the template for blues songs “I woke up this morning” – and the lyrical power of the double negation in the blues ain’t nothing but a fatal heart disease.

Nevertheless, Handy is not too proud of this particular song. Or so it seems, anyway: in his autobiography he mentions this song only once. Still, each one of the three verses has more poetic hits than all six verses of Dylan’s “Shot Of Love” put together. Alone Handy’s opening line Shoeboot Reader was the leader of a colored band has more infectious rhythm, is more melodic and narratively more exciting than any of the verses in “Shot Of Love” – and undoubtedly, the Nobel laureate would see that too.

Dylan’s song seems at least initially inspired by Moon Martin’s “Bad Case Of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor)”. The lyrics then are set up as a “list-song”, a style form the bard often chooses (“Gotta Serve Somebody”, “Everything Is Broken”, “Blowin’ In The Wind”, to name but a few – in Dylan’s catalogue you can find about fifteen to thirty, depending on your definition).

“Shot Of Love” doesn’t really stand out positively within that selection – most of the verse lines just aren’t that strong. Partly absurd (like Don’t need a shot of codeine to help me to repent), partly clumsy (“no book satisfies the habit it feeds”?), partly, well… powerless, adolescent poetry is, unfortunately, a striking disqualification for verses like You’ve only murdered my father, raped his wife and what makes the wind wanna blow tonight?

Just as unsatisfying are the two Bible references. One is empty (“I seen the kingdoms of the world”), the other incorrect, or incomprehensible: “It’s just bound to kill me dead like the men that followed Jesus when they put a price upon His head.”

No, Dylan’s outspoken satisfaction will mainly be due to the sound, which indeed is spectacular. Sound also is a long, captivating topic of conversation in the very entertaining interview Bono is doing for an Irish music magazine, Hot Press, in 1984. Bono believes in the importance of the room, the space for the right sound, and explains how the German producer Conny Plank always uses the sound of the recording room. And then “Shot Of Love” comes up:

Dylan: Yeah, you’d make an album in three days or four days and it was over—if that many! It’s that long now… it takes four days to get a drum sound.
Bono: […] But you can’t go backwards, you must go forward. You try to bring the values that were back there, you know, the strength, and if you see something that was lost, you got to find a new way to capture that same strength. Have you any idea of how to do that? I think you’ve done it by the way… I think Shot of Love, that opening track has that.
Dylan: I think so too. You’re one of the few people to say that to me about that record, to mention that record to me.
Bono: That has that feeling.
Dylan: It’s a great record, it suits just about everybody.
Bono: The sound from that record makes me feel like I’m in the same room as the other
musicians. I don’t feel like they’re over there.

It is the only song on the album produced by the legendary Bumps Blackwell (Little Richard, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke) – surely no coincidence. Dylan explicitly honours him in the Biograph booklet: “I gotta say that of all the producers I ever used, he was the best, the most knowledgeable and he had the best instincts.”

Few covers. The most famous is the one by the irresistible PJ Harvey; just like her version of “Highway 61 Revisited” a trashy, furious performance (1999, live at Music Of The Millennium Awards) – Polly Jean does love a good racket, every now and then.

Beautiful, but incomparable with the by far best cover of the song, which does what a cover should do: enrich the original.

Since 1999, our German friends from Frankfurt, the tribute band DoubleDylans, have been combining brilliant, successful Dylan covers with their own songs and with edited translations of Dylan songs.

Already on the first record, Monsters Of Folk Rock from 2000 (when the men still call themselves The Devilish DoubleDylans), there are highly attractive versions of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, “Drifter’s Escape”, “Silvio” and “Goin’ To Acapulco”. And especially the cover ensuring even international recognition: The DoubleDylans’ version of “Shot Of Love” is selected for the popular collection May Your Song Always Be Sung Vol. 3 (2003), where it proudly shines among big guns like Rick Danko, Chris Whitley and Mick Taylor.

The made-in-Germany approach of “Shot Of Love” is a revelation. The DoubleDylans ignore the sound, colour and style of the original, do not try to copy Dylan’s sweaty, hard-rocked soul, but move the song to the Basement. Upright bass and acoustic guitar lay down a friendly folk shuffle, the mandolin gives shots of lovely, cheerful licks throughout, but above all the duetto, the ensemble singing provides the magic; the men deliver something very similar to the brilliant rendition of “Clothes Line Saga” by The Roches, one of the very best Dylancovers at all: the contradictory trick of singing both toneless and melodic at the same time.

On a side note: fans who are not put off by a German re-translation should also be enchanted by the brilliant, hilarious “Lilli, Rosemarie & der Rettichretter” or by one of the most beautiful, haziest “Visions Of Johanna” covers: “Visionen von Johanna“.

And not a single grammatical error, by the way.

Shot of Love…

Here’s Visions…


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  1. Normally I value your comments very highly, and your dislike for the lyrics here I will not dispute, if you cannot feel them, what is the use, they are clearly not speaking to you because you do not share the experience, and their grammar and absurdity will offer you reason to dismiss them. But I do think that you have missed the point this time and ask myself, why criticize a song you don’t understand, you could have chosen some that make sense to you, like in other cases. To me these lyrics, like the sound of the whole band, send chills up my spine, and I think Dylan was not joking when he expressed his feelings for this song. You doubt a book or movie cannot feed a habit? You think codeine does not make you repent after you took it? Wait until the headache sets in after it subsides. And asking why the wind blows tonight hits home the desperation why you are alive, when everything goes wrong. I’ve been there and here Dylan speaks right to my heart, without poetic disguise. But keep on your stories about the songs Jochem! My hat is off for your work in general.

  2. Dank je Hans,
    Your comments are always greatly appreciated, whether we agree or not. Funny enough, I got a very similar reaction from Matthias Schmidt, one of the DoubleDylans, who very much agrees with you, defending these lyrics with a similar passion and eloquence. So, I am outnumbered. Your sympathetic reaction deserves a well-considered answer too, though.

    Maybe I should have elaborated a bit more. I don’t think I am not understanding the lyrics or missing a point. After all, the lyrics are not that complex – the poet serves up a row of images and comparisons that all express a state of despair. I suppose I “can feel the lyrics”, like any adult can, I guess. But I do have an opinion, which in itself does not equal “not-understanding”.

    I’m critical of the (word-) choices the poet makes. I’d say that a verse line like “Don’t even feel like crossing the street and my car ain’t actin’ right” can hardly be compared to the beauty of Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial or I’ll show you my heart / But not all of it, only the hateful part or, to stay in the mood, the silent despair of I don’t even care if I ever see her again / Most of the time.
    As for the examples you quote, I have a similar awkwardness. I do agree that the use of codeine can lead to regret, remorse, to feeling sorry maybe, but “repent”? It’s hardly a Deadly Sin, is it?

    As is satisfy the hurt. In the spirit of the surrounding verses I understand that the poet means to express: ease the pain, relieve the hurt, alleviate the ache … but “satisfy the hurt” insinuates a compensation for damage, is almost an administrative-legal expression. And another question remains unanswered: what kind of habit is fed by reading books or watching films? The need to know? The urge to escape from reality? And what’s wrong with that?

    Nitpicking, probably. The poet, as we know, prefers sound to semantics, and lyrically his message comes across one way or the other. Still, I think a Nobel laureate should be able to do better than this.

    By the way, I hope you mean, “Dylan speaks right to my heart, with poetic disguise.” I’m pretty sure verse lines like “tattooed my babies with a poison pen” or the title “shot of love” are not prosaic – and, quite on the contrary, most certainly poetic disguise.

    On another side note: Dylan never plays the song after 1989. The counter is stuck on the unimpressive number of 83 performances. Of course, that doesn’t tell all that much, but at least it suggests that Dylan’s own qualification “my most perfect song” seems to be subject to some inflation.

    Still, in the end, the master himself does back you up, and not me: If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means.
    Groeten uit Utrecht!

  3. Dank je Jochem!
    Thanks yes, I think you have some strong points there with which I can agree, even if it does not diminish my admiration for the song. And I take back the insinuation, which was not meant so severely, that you would not understand the song, you show pretty well you got th message, but are not that enamoured with the way it is expressed. Poetical he has done far better, sure. And that’s why I think he wears little disguise in these lines, I think he very much identified with the prosecuted in those days (and still, if you take his reference to Anne Frank seriously). The mixing up of platitudes with strong sayings is typically Dylan, though once again he has done better. But the words here fit the music, for me.
    warm greetings
    hans altena

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