By Tony Attwood
In terms of songwriting, for Bob Dylan, the year after “Blood on the Tracks” was dominated by the collaboration with Jacques Levy. But prior to this kicking off, and with Bob seemingly not knowing how he would follow up what many considered his greatest work to date, he wrote three songs which we examine in this piece.
There is also a postscript about another piece of music that was written around this time, which I feel would have influenced Bob enormously, and may have been a significant part of the reason why he then turned to working with a co-writer for his next album.
OK, so, imagine this…
You are recognised by millions upon millions of people as not just a genius, but THE genius in your field. You have just created a work that by and large is regarded as your greatest achievement. In fact some already call it THE greatest achievement in your area of work: “Blood on the Tracks”. Hailed as your masterpiece, you know the next music you produce has got to be pretty damn good. So what do you do?
You will know, given the way the critics work, and the oneupmanship that many critics, (and especially writers on the subject of Bob Dylan) engage in, in trying to suggest that if only the artist had listened to them, the resultant work would have been far superior, it is almost inevitable that anything you tackle is going to be considered as “not as good” as the last effort. After all, if that last work was the ultimate, the greatest, the most magnificent album, it is going to be downhill from here on.
To overcome that problem one would need a return to the days of 1962-65, in which Dylan wrote no less than 116 songs, ranging from Blowing in the wind to Visions of Johanna, from Hard Rain’s a gonna fall to It’s all right ma, from It’s all over now baby blue to Desolation Row. Everything is now not just going to be compared to those masterpieces, but now also to “Blood on the Tracks”.
The one thing Bob did have on his side however was time. There was none of the demand for “another album” straightaway by the record company, that he faced in the 1960s, so he could take in ideas, look around, and consider the world as the writer of Tangled up in blue. He could take his time to look afresh at songwriter, as the man who had created yet another new way of seeing the world.
And I think that is what Bob intended to do, but, as I will try and show, one thing came along which knocked him out of his security.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning. “Blood on the Tracks” was released and considered an utter masterpiece. What now?
According to such reports as are available Bob spent some time playing with the Willie Murphy Band, which certainly makes sense given the way Willie Murphy himself turned jazz-blues upside down and inside out.
Initially however Bob didn’t step out into a new dimension, and although it seems he recorded “Money Blues” with the Willie Muphy band, it appears that the song metamorphosed later. So it is quite possible that Bob had the idea for the song and was looking to explore where it could fit into the new approach that he knew he would need for the next album.
What we know now of course is that the influence of Willie Murphy was not ultimately a key factor in Bob’s musical explorations, and that ultimately it was Jacques Levy who helped the journey into somewhere different. But we shouldn’t overplay this collaboration as being the salvation to Bob’s conundrum of what to do next, because it is clear Bob was very open to new influences and new ideas from all sources.
So he started the year with Money Blues – a song within which there is little evidence of any new thinking whatsoever. It is a perfectly reasonable standard 12 bar blues – nothing wrong with that, but hardly of the Bob Dylan Standard as established by “Blood on the Tracks”
Sittin’ here thinkin’ Where does the money go Sittin’ here thinkin’ Where does the money go Well, I give it to my woman She ain’t got it no more
It continues in the same way until it concludes
Come to me, mama Ease my money crisis now Come to me, mama Ease my money crisis now I need something to support me And only you know how
There was also another song recorded at this time “Footprints in the Sand” but again it seems to be just an idea being kicked around.
No, the first “real” song that Dylan wrote post-masterpiece (ie something that came after “Blood on the Tracks” and which was more than a knock-about sketch) was something Bob worked on his own, using the influence of what he found around him.
And there’s no surprise here. Bob Dylan has always responded to the world around him. To the people, the ideas of the moment, the events, the local environment. Bob Dylan picks up his influences as he passes through life.
This time (at least according to the story that we have and which seems to have been verified as at least being partially true) Bob somehow found himself in the south of France as a guest at a gypsy event; an event that would appear to fit the bill completely in terms of the song he wrote next. Of course the story may be utterly apocryphal, but then we would simply be looking for something else that gave Bob his new direction. I’d sooner accept the evidence we have rather than go looking for something else that might not be there.
Interestingly both Golden Loom and One More Cup of coffee (the first two “real” songs written by Dylan post-Blood, have a vision of a life that is outside the norm, most certainly outside the hurly-burly of the life back on the road that Bob had been experiencing. As you will know (if you have been paying attention) we are still at this moment in our story nine years away from the start of the The Never-Ending Tour. Influences and ideas would have to come from somewhere else.
And given the reception that “Blood on the Tracks” had had, these new ideas were going to have to be good.
So the story is that Bob somehow pitched up at a Romany event in France and then wrote “One more cup of coffee” which as he himself pointed out, is Romany orientated.
(The recording below is not the “original” of course, and unfortunately I don’t know the source of this – if you know, can you write in please. It’s rather a fine version in my opinion – and is probably incredibly famous, and it’s just me that doesn’t know who is involved).
Dylan told Robert Shelton that he had been in France with David Oppenheim, when his host suggested they visit a local gypsy festival in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in Provence, France, on Dylan’s birthday where he came across a Gypsy King in declining old age, abandoned by most of his wives and children.
But as it turns out that is only part of the story, for in June 1975 Dylan then met Scarlet Rivera “wandering in the streets of the Village” (according to Heylin). Rivera was unknown at the time although has since made a dozen or more albums. And it seems her violin playing certainly had a profound influence on the way the song developed.
The song develops its “gypsy” feel through using the harmonic minor (very much a western classical concept, and itself nothing to do with Romany music) in which Dylan uses the chords that emerge from the descending version of the scale (A minor, G, F, E). Thus it is not a Romany scale in the true sense (for which one would have to turn to the Hungarian Gypsy Scale or the Phrygian dominant scale).
There are many commentaries which suggest that the song is related to Dylan’s break up with his ex-wife, particularly because during this year Dylan also wrote Sara. This of course might be true, but really would someone who wrote
Sara, Sara You must forgive me my unworthiness
would also write and include on the same album
But I don’t sense affection No gratitude or love
about the same person? Of course he might, but I think at the very least the case is not proven. And as I have pointed out elsewhere, the lady in this song is beautiful but remote and distant, and very much not one who gives her emotions to another…
Your breath is sweet Your eyes are like two jewels in the sky Your back is straight, your hair is smooth On the pillow where you lie But I don’t sense affection No gratitude or love Your loyalty is not to me But to the stars above
I am willing to be proven wrong on this, but my impression (without going back through every line that Dylan had written in the previous few years) is that Dylan is exploring a completely new style of lyricism. It is truly an imaginative and beautiful expression of emotion which is different from that expressed in “Sara” for example with
Sleepin’ in the woods by a fire in the night Drinkin’ white rum in a Portugal bar Them playin’ leapfrog and hearin’ about Snow White You in the marketplace in Savanna-la-Mar
Indeed throughout “Sara” it is the children who take the stage, but not now, and not here.
The singer is on his way to the valley below, but he is only after something as prosaic as a cup of coffee. Whether the valley below is Hades or whether it is simply a case of popping off down the hillside… well that’s for each individual listener to decide.
For me, the average punter probably doesn’t leave the great love of her life, or the guru one has just found, by saying, “I’ll just have one more cup of coffee.” Rather, you might do that, having had a jolly afternoon or evening or poetry writing and so then you say…
One more cup of coffee for the road One more cup of coffee ’fore I go To the valley below
The influence of the visit to the gypsy camp, as per the story of the old king, now surrounded by the remains of his family, comes through strongly in the second verse, emphasised all the way through by the violin playing.
Your daddy he’s an outlaw And a wanderer by trade He’ll teach you how to pick and choose And how to throw the blade He oversees his kingdom So no stranger does intrude His voice it trembles as he calls out For another plate of food
The whole Romany notion of fortune telling, mystery and illiteracy (by which I mean, the past is not secured in writing, but is endlessly re-told and re-worked) is explored in the third verse, particularly with its last two lines…
But your heart is like an ocean Mysterious and dark
She is thus the unknown, and unknowable, remote woman. An interesting experience for an afternoon, not the love of his life.
Emmylou Harris who sings the vocals alongside Dylan, told this story about making the album, which gives us a very good insight into the way Dylan has always liked to make recordings…
“There was a fellow at Columbia that was a fan, who was like an executive producer, and I think Dylan told him ‘I need a girl singer.’ Don DeVito was his name and I got a call that Dylan wants you to sing, but that wasn’t true because he just wanted a girl singer. I mean we basically shook hands and started recording. I didn’t know the songs, the lyrics were in front of me, and the band would start playing and he would kind of poke me when he wanted me to jump in. Somehow I watched his mouth with one eye and the lyrics with the other. You couldn’t fix anything. What happened in a moment was on the record.”
There is also the story that the introduction of the bass part, which has of course become the essence of the song. This came about because violinist Scarlet Rivera wasn’t ready.
The bassist, Rob Stoner told Mojo magazine in October 2012: “The beginning of ‘One More Cup of Coffee’… that wasn’t arranged for me to do a bass solo. Scarlet wasn’t ready. Bob starts strumming his guitar – nothing’s happening. Somebody better play something, so I start playin’ a bass solo. Basically the run-throughs became the first takes.”
Moving on, there is one final song that Dylan created before the collaboration with Levy started: Golden Loom. It is sad that the song is largely ignored, and has been treated in such a dreadfully derisory manner by writers such as Heylin, but it is worth listening to and indeed studying through its three interwoven themes…
- The operator of a loom takes a multitude of threads and weaves them together in a strong but endlessly pliable piece of clothing.
- A storyteller presents an idea, and then another and another, and waves them together in something that mimics life, but isn’t life.
- The three spinners in Norse mythology sit and weave the lives of all mortals and create their fate – and fate is inexorable.
The loom, in short is a symbol of anything and everything that is woven together. And out of this weave comes … whatever you want. If you are a Viking, for example, it is whatever is deemed to be your life to come. It a rich tapestry. It is life.
The violin plays, the band adds a lilting rhythm; for the most part it is built around two chords, just tripping us up at the end of each verse, as a wave comes in and crashes on the shore, taking us up the chords in the penultimate line (Moonlight on the water)
It is all so calm and rested
I walk across the bridge in the dismal light Where all the cars are stripped between the gates of night I see the trembling lion with the lotus flower tail And then I kiss your lips as I lift your veil But you’re gone and then all I seem to recall is the smell of perfume And your golden loom
The stories that she has woven are still here.
The one Dylan recording that we have of this song was made on 30 July 30 1975, with some of the musicians from Rolling Thunder Revue. Much of “Desire” was recorded in this session.
So there we were. The master had created the masterpiece in “Blood on the Tracks”, but now needed to do something more, and seemingly he felt these opening songs of the new years were not enough. Where to turn?
We know the answer of course, he turned to a co-writer. But I think there is another element here as well. And for this I have to backtrack a little, because in November 1974 Joan Baez wrote “Diamonds and Rust,” which she has openly admitted is about Dylan (although it doesn’t really need such an admission).
It is by any measure a brilliant piece of music – even more so since it is written by an artist who has only ever written a handful of songs. We might remember “To Bobby”, and although that is a fine song, it is nothing compared with this…
Now I see you standing With brown leaves falling around And snow in your hair Now you're smiling out the window Of that crummy hotel, over Washington Square Our breath comes out white clouds Mingles and hangs in the air Speaking strictly for me We both could have died then and there
In fact Joan Baez has written so few songs, we really might wonder where on earth this ability to compose such a magnificent piece of music suddenly came from, and why she then didn’t go on and write many more.
But that was a matter for the future. The key point here is that sometime, around the time, while Bob was pondering how to write the songs to put in his new album, (a new album that would inevitably be compared with “Blood on the Tracks” he would have heard “Diamonds and Rust.” I rather fancy that even if he had not, by this time, been thinking about writing the rest of his next album with Jacques Levy, hearing “Diamonds and Rust” would have immediately convinced him of the dangers of writing the next album on his own.
And I suspect, at this moment, Bob might have pondered, as I have done ever since, how anyone could have written a song as brilliant as this, with no antecedents. He would suddenly have been faced with a second dilemma. Because now not only did he have to follow “Blood on the Tracks”, he also had to reach the levels of insight of “Diamonds and Rust”.
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