By Tony Attwood
This is part 27 of All Directions at Once. An index to the series is available here.
(The previous episode is at Oh Bob you’re such a big boy now; just watch out for that storm)
In the last article I was making the point that Bob’s creative spirit had really risen at the end of 1973 and now he was in full swing producing incredibly varied and brilliant new songs that were taking him once again in a series of new directions, just as had happened in the 1960s.
In the previous year Dylan had explored the ups and downs of relationships with Dirge begins, “I hate myself for loving you,” while “Wedding Song,” begins “I love you more than ever.”
These contradictions of feelings were continued and taking the songs in the order they were composed, after the complex storyline of four characters in “Lily, Rosemary” etc, we had the ever varying lifelines of “Tangled”, the lost love of “You’re a big girl” and then the ultimate “come on” of “Shelter”. My point is thus that Dylan was working a consistent theme here – the ins and outs of feelings within relationships, seen from every angle he could find, and thus it is continued in “Shelter from the Storm” which suggests there is nothing we can latch onto, nothing we can hold, for nothing is fixed. The storm in short, is all around us. We might get shelter for a night, but after that, the storm is liable to leave a trail of destruction in every direction, and as a result, she has gone and oh how he misses her.
That indeed is the theme of all these songs going back to “Dirge”. Nothing is fixed, nothing is secure. And as such, nothing is knowable – and again we find that in “If you see her, say hello”
Life in fact is a storm, and that storm, it seems, can be expressed in many ways and indeed, “If you see her, say hello,” is one of those songs that has within it has a complete multiplicity of many of those ways.
It is also one of those songs that some of the “experts” on Dylan seem to take as a starting point for their own theoretical journey into their personal views as to what Dylan is and is not. My view is the reverse, as I hope I have been able to show. This is a continuation of the theme that Dylan found at the end of the previous year, and which he seems to have been finding a great source of inspiration at this time.
Of course anyone can play the game of finding themes within Dylan’s writing, but in doing so I believe the interpreter of Dylan’s work should be wary on the one hand of missing what is so obviously there for us to see (but which can be missed through having pre-ordined theories or by sticking to the view that each song is individual), and on the other creating theories of meaning which although plausible, are no more plausible than 50 other theories. And what use are 50 theories when we have no evidence as to which one is true?
Now it can be said that I don’t have evidence for the notion that Bob had, at the end of the previous year revitalised his creative power and had discovered this theme of the ebb and flow of life in relationships, but at least without forced upon songs, it fits!
So, to return to the music, the early version of “If you see her” that opens disk three of the Bootleg Series 1-3, reminds us that Dylan is, or was, a fine guitarist, a man who could pluck unusual chords from nowhere to give his music unexpected twists and meanings. It is not all about the lyrics – but it does mean the music fits with the lyrics, which are about the unexpected twists and turns in a relationship and in one’s emotions.
If you really want to hear early Dylan seeking to express himself with both music and lyrics unified, this track is a beautiful example. Even the typical wailing harmonica in its standard place as the penultimate verse, has a point as the song becomes more and restless in the lyric and the music.
In this early recording however Dylan holds himself back much more than in the version on Blood on the Tracks, keeping us within the lyrical and poignant content, until we get to “and I never gotten used to it” as the angst takes over.
The version that most of us know intimately however is the one from the masterpiece album “Blood on the Tracks” which simplifies the musical accompaniment considerably. Here, it is placed after the wild craziness of “Lily Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” and in total contrast to the previous track it is tentative beyond anything on the earlier version.
Indeed, it is an interesting experiment to play the end of “Lily” running as it does at hyper speed. It’s final line is “Most of all she was thinking about the Jack of Hearts…” Then there is the harmonica verse which seems to leave us with just the organ playing. The between track pause and then that oh so slight, so unsure, opening, as we get the rocking between A and G, which symbolises all uncertainty whenever it starts a pop, rock or folk song.
It is in fact a total and utter contrast to the previous track, and all the more powerful for that.
So what we start with is a hesitant lost love song, just as in the early version, and it feels that at one stage we had something of a rarity, but what we ended up with at least 50 percent is a Dylan song of disdain. It is, “Once upon a time you looked so fine…” and “You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend” all over again.
Half disdain half lost love. Now there’s a thing.
If you listen to the Blood on the Tracks recording in perfect silence you can hear a slight upping of the ante as the second verse comes in. But still it is peaceful, as the singer describes his lost love. OK he’s heard she is in Tangier, and Tangier is not necessarily a nice place to be (or at least it certainly wasn’t around the time the song was written. I can attest to that out of personal experience). And so he is wondering just what she is getting up to.
And they’ve had a falling out, but it is accepted. It happens. He was really hurt, but he’s not blaming her. If that’s what she needs to do ok.
OK except… if you listen to the version above, three things happen in the song. The speed is different, and the way Bob delivers the lines gives them a completely different meaning. Does he really care any more? His voice is shakey. Is he frantic? Well, maybe but that guitar solo around two minutes is taking us somewhere. It is almost as if Bob is saying, “well yes I used to sing it this way, but you know, I never really felt like that.” It is a re-writing of the song, without changing the words or the chords which is quite something.
So when Bob sings the changed
We had a falling-out, like lovers sometimes do And to think of how she left that night, hurts me through and through
The “chill” has gone, now he is “hurt” and that is in the music of this version – oh how it is there! And then the instrumental verse contradicts this – he’s pretending to be alright. And then we have the quiet verse….
If you’ve never listened to it in this way, go back and play this, because it is an amazing turn of the moment. We go from light to dark in one line. And there is no way back, for we hear the pain in the lines about her looking him up. Oh he is so desperate.
Oh yes he is in pain. But the musical interlude that follows it, belies the message of the lyrics. He’s with the guys and gals, and having a good time.
This contrast between feelings is quite extraordinary.
So by now Bob has written five songs of depth and potential for what became Blood on the Tracks. And this is unusual because normally with Bob’s writing we also find songs that are cast aside. Not always of course – it didn’t happen with JWH, not least because (according to reports) Bob simply wrote the lyrics one after the other, and then set them to music, knowing he had to do an album. Then he seemed to end up two songs short, and had to put in a couple of country numbers at the end.
Thus there were no rejected songs on JWH, but mostly in the past he has written a collection of songs, and the best ones for the album are pulled out. However with “Blood on the Tracks” that hasn’t happened so far, but now it does, for at this point Bob wrote, and recorded twice, the song “Call Letter Blues.”
Given the songs that have already been written for the album, this is a really strange song to write. It is a classic slow moving blues that actually is hardly moving at all. But it is not just saying the world has gone wrong. It is saying she left – not only did she leave the man, she left the children too. Maybe that was too much to put in a song, or maybe Bob just realised that it simply wasn’t as original as the other material he was producing.
And certainly the originality was still inside him, waiting to get out, for next he composed Simple Twist of Fate
If you have the outtakes or Spotify do play “Call letter blues” and then play “Simple Twist of Fate” for no other reason that the fact there is no comparison between them. Whereas we might all wonder why songs like “Blind Willie McTell” and “Dignity” never made an album, here I suspect everyone would understand why “Call letter” didn’t make it.
Which takes us on to that next composition… Simple Twist of Fate
Unlike the classic blues this can be played in a multiplicity of ways, as this version shows…
We are used this song as being the second track on the album, its position continuing the long established tradition of having an upbeat opening track followed by a slow or sombre second track. Just listen to the end of Tangled up in blue and the opening of this track – the contrast is overwhelming.
But hearing the songs in the order in which they were written takes us on a different journey. “Simple Twist” is a song of magnificence – an incredibly complex revelation contained in six musically identical verses. As such it is a true masterpiece of songwriting which emphasises the fact that “Call Letter” really was an aside, an incidental, a moment’s pause before the serious business of writing continued.
“Simple Twist” is in fact a follow up to “If you see her”. We really do have the story continuing – something that is lost if we play the songs in the order presented on the album. Plus the music is interesting too, for the chord sequence, while not unusual in pop and rock is unusual in Dylan, and it contains the twist of the title line.
The recording is in F major, and the moment within the music that sticks in the memory throughout is the move from B flat to B flat minor in the fourth line (for example “’Twas then he felt alone”). It is not a Dylan invention, but it portrays musically all the pathos and depth of feeling that the lyrics contain.
The accompaniment on the album is simple: the acoustic guitar strumming, bass guitar and harmonica when there is no vocal. Indeed the complexity of the meaning combined with the simplicity of the music has made it a song that many like to sing – Joan Baez included it on Diamonds and Rust, and Brian Ferry on Dylanesque, plus many others. It is a song you can do anything with…
The simplicity of the music seems to be apparent in the lyrics from the start – the lovers meet but the man feels this isn’t going to work for some reason…
They sat together in the park As the evening sky grew dark She looked at him and he felt a spark tingle to his bones ’Twas then he felt alone and wished that he’d gone straight And watched out for a simple twist of fate
So we know there is a history, and wait to find out what. But then two things happen to the song which turn everything upside down. On occasion the “He” becomes “I” while the woman turns out to be a prostitute working the docks and the singer is an old man harking after the charms of a young woman. The he/I dichotomy gives us a difficult feeling, while the tale of an old man and a hooker seems out of place with the gentle melody and chord sequence.
In fact, if ever there is a Dylan song that gives you a knife in the heart after fooling you at the start this is it. You need a strong constitution to take this…
They walked along by the old canal A little confused, I remember well And stopped into a strange hotel with a neon burning bright He felt the heat of the night hit him like a freight train Moving with a simple twist of fate
Even if we got the changing positions and realities of “Tangled up in blue” sorted out, what are we to make of this “I remember well”. It seems in fact that the story teller is looking back to his past and is so removed from that past that he now confuses his personal memories with those which, because of the pain of the memory, he has had to place outside himself.
If you have ever experienced that pain, and had to take to that final recourse of separation from yourself to deal with it – or should I say if you are old enough to have to do that – then you will know the level of the anguish of what might have been, but now can never be.
So now we think we have this juxtaposition sorted, we understand the pain, but then Dylan hits us again.
A saxophone some place far off played As she was walking by the arcade As the light burst through a beat-up shade where he was waking up, She dropped a coin into the cup of a blind man at the gate And forgot about a simple twist of fate
He can’t forget her and his casual encounter. But she is up and on with her work, although showing a feeling for those worse off than her that might take us by surprise.
Now Dylan either does one of his time-mix tricks where we find the story is not told in sequence, or he wakes the next day and finds she is not there when he has perhaps been dreaming of her, tries to deal with it, but can’t. I prefer the latter interpretation but that’s just me.
He woke up, the room was bare He didn’t see her anywhere He told himself he didn’t care, pushed the window open wide Felt an emptiness inside to which he just could not relate Brought on by a simple twist of fate
The “he could not relate” line is the key to the “I” / “he” dichotomy – the “he” and “I” are the same person, because as this line says, the man cannot relate to these feelings. He is truly lost.
Then time passes, he searches her out, desperately hoping to find her again, but nothing is in his control. She has the power and he is lost.
He hears the ticking of the clocks And walks along with a parrot that talks Hunts her down by the waterfront docks where the sailors all come in Maybe she’ll pick him out again, how long must he wait Once more for a simple twist of fate
And then we move on to this wonderful final, final verse. It hardly feels as if Dylan has been singing a straight strophic song with no variations – that B flat to B flat minor pulls the heart every time and keeps us focused. He draws his conclusion – and for anyone who lives in a world of emotion and feeling – anyone who understands what it means to feel the pain of “if only” knows what he is saying with the opening two lines.
People tell me it’s a sin To know and feel too much within I still believe she was my twin, but I lost the ring She was born in spring, but I was born too late Blame it on a simple twist of fate
And now the “I” comes back, the eternal wishing for and thinking about a woman whom he met but could never get to know, could never love, but who is forever in his mind. The beautiful woman symbolising everything hopeful – she was born in spring. He is in the autumn of his life, and thus they are forever separated.
So strong is the emotion that the ability to separate himself into the “other man” who had these feelings, and the actual man living in the real world, now breaks down. He is that man, and all the pretending in the world cannot remove that reality.
The pain of memory is there; the pain is eternal.
And there are so many moving versions of the song… this one moves me to tears each time.
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