This article continues from Don’t think twice, Part I: Time Passes
by Jochen Markhorst
In Holland, the annual election of the Top 2000 is quite a thing. In the first week of December, millions of votes are cast by Dutch people who want to see and hear their all-time most beautiful song in the list, and from Boxing Day to midnight New Year’s Eve, the top two thousand elected songs are played and counted down 24/7, non-stop, on Radio 2. Ascending, of course, to the number 1, which almost always is “Bohemian Rhapsody”. In the twenty-first century, Freddy Mercury’s immortal chef-d’oeuvre reached the highest spot already seventeen times – and in 2019 Queen is the band with the most mentions at all; with 37 songs in the Top 2000, Queen finally beats The Beatles on that front too, for the first time. Still, Pink Floyd is the only band with three songs in the Top 10.
The run-up to the list leads to family squabbles, heated discussions in the company canteen and the workplace (mostly about the merits of “Hotel California” and “Child In Time”), Facebook initiatives try to get that one song from a local hero into the “List of Lists”, interest groups are set up to push Nick Drake and lobby groups to promote songs of a certain Christian or political signature. Then, on 7 December, the registration closes, and things calm down again.
Fully united the country is then, from Boxing Day onwards. The Top 2000 is by far the best listened to radio program in the Netherlands, and the studio, in the middle of the country, receives thousands and thousands of visitors from all corners of the country, who often have to wait hours before they may enter for a one-hour-visit. Once inside, paradise is gained and the religion teacher sings along with “Highway To Hell”, the Hell’s Angel with Whitney Houston and the respectable housewife with “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
Dylan is a mid-tier. On average there are about nine Dylan originals in the Top 2000, “Hurricane” always the highest, somewhere around spot 60, and in addition usually three or four covers (Hendrix’ “All Along The Watchtower” is the most popular, obviously, followed by usual suspects “Mr. Tambourine Man”, the Guns N’ Roses version of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” and Adele).
The lowest ranked Dylan song has only been in it since 2018: “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” (no. 1850 in 2018 and at 1947 in 2019). From where this sudden revival of an almost sixty-year-old song comes, is unclear. Maybe because in the twenty-first century the song more often pops up in the voters’ subjective worlds. In the second decade of this century, Don’t Think Twice can be heard in the television series Mad Men and The Walking Dead, which are also successful in the Netherlands, in the period drama The Help, and in 2019 in the hit series This Is Us and in the crime film The Kitchen.
It is, of course, one of Dylan’s most beautiful love songs. The basis of the song seems autobiographical; the inspiration is quite likely a first relationship crisis, the end of the rose-tinted period with his first great love Suze Rotolo (the girl on the iconic cover of The Freewheelin’), who has just informed him that she will stay in Italy for a little while longer. The hurt, still very young Dylan tries to put into words a relation’s extinguishing, with controlled, mature melancholy, aloof and poetic.
Well, partially, he does achieve that goal. In the title and in the opening lines It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe / It don’t matter, anyhow he still is poetic and aloof. But the rest of the lyrics are mainly driven by hurt pride and heartbreak. It is not yet a flaming resentment, nor a vengeful venom, like later in “Just Like A Woman” or, even worse, in “Idiot Wind”, but the bitter reproaches (You could have done better but I don’t mind / You just kinda wasted my precious time and the somewhat vacuous I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul) on the one hand, and the tender despair on the other hand (Still I wish there was somethin’ you would do or say / To try and make me change my mind and stay) reveal how much the protagonist suffers. And the fact that he almost drowns in self-pity in the process is perhaps a little awkward, but still poignant.
After her return from Italy, Dylan and Rotolo do reunite (the cover photo was taken during this period), but Dylan seems to be stuck in the role of the abandoned, wounded lover. Moreover, Joan Baez is now in the picture. When an infatuated Baez introduces Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1963, it becomes clear to the rest of the world as well. Suze leaves the concert sobbing, a few days later she packs up her things and moves out of Dylan’s apartment on West 4th Street. At a concert later, Baez announces her version of “Don’t Think Twice” rather ruthlessly with the words about a love affair that has lasted too long, but otherwise she spends remarkably few words on this constellation. In her extensive, candid autobiography And A Voice To Sing With she tells enough about her love rival Sara Lowndes, the later Mrs Dylan, she talks at length about those days when she falls in love with Dylan, around the corner in that crummy hotel over Washington Square, but she doesn’t devote a single letter to the girl he is cheating on at that moment, to Suze, nor to the song she herself will sing often enough about it, Don’t Think Twice.
There are countless covers of the song. Peter, Paul & Mary are the first to score a big hit with it (no. 2 in the Billboard Charts, 1963). Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Melanie, Bryan Ferry and Mme Sarkozy Carla Bruni (who sings it in 2009 together with Hugues Aufray in the French translation “N’y Pense Plus, Tout Est Bien”) are just a few of the more famous artists who have it on their repertoire. On their Staring Down The Brilliant Dream (2010) the Indigo Girls are singing a beautiful version, after they also had the opportunity to sing it with Joan Baez. And on YouTube dozens of loving living room versions are to be found. Of serious looking, spectacled forty-somethings, of shy teenage girls with ukulele and shiny washed hair and of humourless, narcissistic twenty-somethings. The song can hardly be ruined; it remains a beautiful song in every rendition. Many covers approach the original and some surpass it – “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” seems to have a timeless, indestructible power.
The most beautiful cover is sung by Curtis Stigers on his CD You Inspire Me from 2003. Stigers is undoubtedly an artist after Dylan’s heart; a singing saxophonist with blues, rock and jazz in his blood. His first album already features a beautiful rendition of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love And Understanding”, the song that had almost been on both Jakob Dylan’s repertoire and that of his father. In 2007, Elvis Costello occasionally performs on stage with his idol Dylan (to which we owe the unique, acoustic duet version of “Tears Of Rage”, St. Louis, 22 October 2017);
… but in his wonderful autobiography Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink Costello reveals that Dylan actually wanted to play “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love And Understanding”. The two of them have been studying the song for a little while, “for a verse or two”, before Costello finally dares to say that he did not write this song at all.
Stigers, meanwhile, makes a few jazzy albums, explores country and pop, lets his hair grow long and scores a huge hit with the smooth earwig “I Wonder Why”, records with big guns like Clapton, Prince and Joe Cocker, and sings for the television series Sons Of Anarchy a bloodcurdling version of one of the songs from Dylan’s personal Bible, “John The Revelator”.
Stigers’ “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, however, is from his jazz phase. Jazzy arrangements do work well with Dylan songs every now and then, but rarely as well as here. This version is carried by a reverbing, rolling organ. The drums whirl off-beat around it, the bass is dry and lazy and Stigers’ phrasing is true elocution art; all the pain and all the venom within the lyrics do come out perfectly in this super cooled version.
Beautiful trumpet solo, too. You may be able to find it here, – certainly if you are in the USA and perhaps elsewhere if you are running a VPN – but otherwise we’re having a problem finding an online copy of this version of the song openly available in the UK – and although the “You inspire me” album is on Spotify in the UK, curiously that one track is not currently playable. If you find an alternative source do write in with the URL. Meanwhile you can get it on Amazon if you don’t mind paying.
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
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
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