In the summertime we draw attention to each other

 

by Jochen Markhorst

Joni Mitchell owes her breakthrough to Judy Collins, who recorded the immortal “Both Sides Now” of the then still completely unknown Canadian in 1967 for her seventh album Wildflowers. It is also released as a single and it scores well: just like the album, it’s a Top 10 hit.

Still, Mitchell does have mixed emotions about the Collins recording, which can be felt. Wildflowers doesn’t stand the test of time well at all – it’s an over-orchestrated, partly cloyingly sweet collection of essentially brilliant songs – and Collins’ version of “Both Sides Now” is accordingly corny. There are three Leonard Cohen songs on the album, also appearing earlier than the artist’s own performance: apart from the less famous “Priests” the classics “Sisters Of Mercy” and “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”. The best that can be said of them is that Judy Collins (who on her previous album was the first to record “Suzanne” as well) paves the way for Cohen to be able to record the songs himself in October ’67 – in the superior, breath-taking performances on Songs Of Leonard Cohen (1967), which most certainly do survive.

A second merit of the now dated album is that it draws Dylan’s attention to both Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. Echoes thereof, of the introduction to Collins’ Wildflowers and “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” can be found in the Desire-outtake “Golden Loom” (1975), one of Dylan’s most “Cohen-like” songs (with the little cryptic reference “and then you drift away on a summer’s day where the wildflowers bloom”) – and in “In The Summertime”.

“In The Summertime” is in more ways an outsider on Shot Of Love. Literary, for starters. All other verses on the album are written in the ordinary rhyme scheme aabb, for this song the poet imposes on himself the age-old, in pop music quite unusual aaab-cccb:

I was in your presence for an hour or so
Or was it a day? I truly don’t know
Where the sun never set, where the trees hung low
By that soft and shining sea
Did you respect me for what I did
Or for what I didn’t do, or for keeping it hid?
Did I lose my mind when I tried to get rid
Of everything you see?

This particular form goes back all the way to one of the Founding Fathers of the Art of Song, to William IX of Aquitaine (1071-1126), nicknamed The Troubadour. William, Count of Poitiers and Duke of Aquitaine (present-day Dordogne) was one of the most powerful feudal lords in Europe, an unsuccessful crusader and a bad, womanising husband, but a brilliant entertainer and brilliant song poet. His early songs are still rather jocular and aim at a howling and roaring male audience, but his later work is more refined, elegant and experiments with poetry techniques that are gratefully copied in the following centuries. As in one of his last songs, probably written in 1125:

Pos de chantar m'es pres talenz,
Farai un vers, don sui dolenz:
Mais non serai obedienz
En Peitau ni en Lemozi.

Qu'era m'en irai en eisil:
En gran paor, en gran peril,
En guerra, laisserai mon fil,
Faran li mal siei vezi.
Since I feel like singing,
I'll write a verse I grieve over:
I shall never be a vassal anymore
in Poitiers nor in Limoges

For now I shall be exiled:
in a dreadful fright, in great peril,
in war, shall I leave my son,
and his neighbours shall turn on him.

…the very first song with this remarkable rhyme scheme.

Kindred spirits throughout the ages feel challenged by this form. Dylan uses it for the first time in one of his most beautiful love songs, in “Mama, You Been On My Mind”, and is probably triggered once again by Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”;

Rows and floes of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I've looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way

In the spring of 1981 Dylan chooses the form one more time, this time for the small masterpiece “Angelina”. However, that song is rejected for Shot Of Love (perhaps out of dissatisfaction with a few too far-fetched rhymes on Angelina, such as “subpoena”, “concertina” and “hyena”). The selected “In The Summertime” seems older, though.

Not only rhyme technical-wise. Stylistically the song is different as well. The dramatic monologue, the poetic form in which an I addresses a fictional audience or a silent opponent, is also a form that suggests that Dylan has been walking around with “In The Summertime” for some time now. On Blood On The Tracks (1975) the song poet likes to use it, and parallels might also be drawn there in terms of content. To “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”, for example. Thematically anyway (a melancholy look back on a summer in love), but also by choice of words: But there’s no way I can compare / All those scenes to this affair from “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome” is very similar to But all that sufferin’ was not to be compared with the glory that is to be, just like the decor, the idealized landscape;

Flowers on the hillside, bloomin’ crazy
Crickets talkin’ back and forth in rhyme
Blue river runnin’ slow and lazy

 versus

Where the sun never set, where the trees hung low
By that soft and shining sea

…like the whole song actually is a kind of a best of Dylan’s love poetry.

The beautiful opening “I was in your presence for an hour or so / Or was it a day? I truly don’t know” masterfully expresses Dylan’s eternal theme Time Passes. And specifically the elusive, deceptive experience of Time that the poet on Blood On The Tracks mentions in songs like “You’re A Big Girl Now” (time is a jet plane) and “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome” (I could stay with you forever and never realize the time), too. And before that in “Time Passes Slowly” and later in “Series Of Dreams” (where time and tempo fly, in an earlier version where time and tempo drag), up to and including the songs on Rough And Rowdy Ways (2020), where the passage of time is mentioned in almost every song. Already in the opening lines (Today and tomorrow and yesterday too), and more explicit in verse lines like Everything’s flowing all in the same time and How can I redeem the time? (“Crossing The Rubicon”)… well, Time Passes has been a constant in Dylan’s oeuvre since 1962, and still is in 2020.

And like this, almost every verse line of “In The Summertime” skims past an earlier work. This reflection on the experience of time is followed by the familiar description of the set, and after that

Did you respect me for what I did
Or for what I didn’t do, or for keeping it hid?

 … which again inevitably evokes “I’ll Keep It With Mine”, the song Dylan worked on for almost two years, from June 1964 to February 1966, finally rejecting it, with its equally melodious, equally poetic paradox:

you might think I’m odd
If I say I’m not loving you for what you are
But for what you’re not

So, we have: the rhyme scheme of “Mama, You Been On My Mind”, a very simple three-chord scheme (I-IV-V, in this case: A-D-E) which Dylan uses for dozens of songs (here it does smell like “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” as well as “No Time To Think”), the theme and the choice of words (echoing among others “Don’t Think Twice”, “Idiot Wind” and “Slow Train”)… yes, “In The Summertime” truly is a Dylan mosaic, a culmination of Dylan’s most beautiful love lyrics. Including, alright, some winks to the evangelical phase from which Dylan releases himself on this record (the winks being hardly loaded jargon like before the flood, the glory that is to be and unto eternity) – but then again: these are hints that without too much creativity also might fit into the more graceful love lyrics à la “Wedding Song” or “If Not For You”.

The potential of the song, which could have had the detonating power of a “Shelter From The Storm” for example, seems to have escaped Dylan. He spends little studio love on the song, the recording of especially the vocals is downright sloppy, and he hides the song in a meaningless place, somewhere halfway Side Two. In the year of its conception, 1981, the song is on the playlist about twenty times (usually somewhere as the ninth or tenth number), but after that the song is pretty much discarded – apart from an unexpected revival in 2002, when Dylan plays it about ten times again, and now puts it on an ear-catching, honourable second place.

Real rehabilitation the song receives in 2020, thanks to the enchanting Mrs. Chrissie Hynde.

The veteran (Hynde has been the singer and driving force of The Pretenders for forty-two years) feels an urge after the release of “I Contain Multitudes” (April 17, ’20), as she tells in an interview with Rolling Stone, July 30. The song is “fucking devastating” and makes her realize that now is the perfect time to honour her idol, “a man who had inspired me for most of my life”, with a tribute. She chooses a particularly successful form. Since she can’t tour, because of the corona restrictions, and is mainly at home, she decides, together with Pretenders guitarist James Walbourne, to record a Dylan cover and to post it on YouTube.

“I sent James a rhythm track on my phone, he added to it, and I put a vocal to it. Then we sent it to [engineer] Tchad Blake, who is out in the wilds of Wales, to mix it.”  

At the end of April, ten days after the release of “I Contain Multitudes” it is on YouTube.

It’s a bewitching version of one of Dylan’s forgotten masterpieces, and it tastes like more; a pleasantly surprised Chrissie decides to start up “The Lockdown Series“; about every fortnight Mrs. Hynde releases another Dylan cover. “Standing On The Doorway”, “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight”, “Tomorrow Is A Long Time”… one is even more attractive than the other. The charm and intimacy of living room recordings, Chrissie Hynde’s knife-like vocals and – as in “In The Summertime” – Walbourne’s brilliant, goosebump-inducing keyboards; pearls, all of them.

Number two in the Series is “You’re A Big Girl Now”, by the way. Time is a jet plane.

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Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold.  His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

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