This is episode 35 of All Directions at once, in which I am trying to explore Dylan’s songs in the order they were written, and seeing how they interlink, rather than treating each song as a separate entity.
The most recent episodes are….
- 32: Does Dylan really care about these people he writes about?
- 33: All Directions at Once: Going Beyond Joey
- 34: Onwards from manipulated reality
By Tony Attwood
Indeed what boring songs these would have been if strict reality, instead of reality extended into fantasies had been the central concept. Imagine how “Mozambique” would have sounded if it had lines telling us that the country had just come out of a long and devastating civil war, instead of being a mock tourist advert.
And so the theme continued with Romance in Durango
It seems to me, by the time the pair got to the end of their work together they had really got the hang of the relationship and were able to launch into much more exciting and interesting works of fiction inspired by facts. If only they had had time, or the inclination, to develop this side of their work further we could have had a second album of collaborative fiction, rather than having to wait a couple of years for “Street Legal” (although in the end it turned out to be worth the wait).
And it clearly was Levy who was not only creating the lyrics, but also pushing Dylan into the Mexican feel. True, Bob had been in Mexico in 1972/3 but there seems to be little influence on his music from this period – until now.
But since Levy stated in an interview that the two writers wrote the opening of “Durango”, and then Levy finished it off, perhaps (according to Heylin) to Dylan’s slight annoyance, we do have to see this as primarily as Levy composition.
But whatever the source, this is one of those songs where we have two excellently arranged different versions – the slow version on the album, and the upbeat Biograph live version. Heylin makes it very clear that it prefers the Biograph version, but I fear he misses something profound in the original album version, namely the extraordinary way in which Dylan plays with the timing.
Indeed I can’t imagine how the song was possibly recorded with the whole band playing together (as is Dylan’s preferred style), as there are so many twists and turns in the way the lyrics influence how the music is performed. Sometimes an extra beat appears at the end of a line, sometimes the line takes an extra beat or two at the end. The time signature changes wildly as we go; I can imagine Frank Zappa rehearsing this to perfection, but not Dylan!
The only thing I can think is that they multi-tracked the whole thing, and then kept the Dylan lyrics and gradually replaced all the instrumentals around that. Certainly there is a hell of lot happening in there, and the normal odd slips by the instrumentalists that we get on Dylan albums are all missing.
But whatever the explanation, what we have here is the summation of the work of these two fine artists, by this time utterly used to working together. And I think, despite the way the songs slip into each other on Desire, with Black Diamond Bay seeping out of Durango, it is worth just occasionally playing the sequence in the order the songs were written. It does give a different understanding to this period of work.
As for the song itself, is there a more evocative opening of any Dylan song than this?
Hot chilli peppers in the blistering sun Dust on my face and my cape Me and Magdalena on the run I think this time we shall escape. Sold my guitar to the baker's son For a few crumbs and a place to hide But I can get another one And I'll play for Magdalena as we ride.
What works so brilliantly here is that within eight lines we have the whole picture, just through the simple selected images. Our minds create the actual images, but the essence of the situation is there, clearly painted in eight lines. Songwriting at its very very best.
Then the Spanish phrases set the scene… Here are my simplistic translations of the Spanish in case you need them (but really my Spanish is poor to non-existent so please do give me a better version if you can)
No llores mi querida (Do not cry my darling) Dios nos vigila (God is watching over us) Agarrame mi vida (hold me, my love, my life)
And we have the history and culture mingled with the hopes of the poor.
Past the Aztec ruins and the ghosts of our people Hoofbeats like castanets on stone At night I dream of bells in the village steeple Then I see the bloody face of Ramon.
And just as I am sure you can improve on my language skills, so I quickly found when I first reviewed this song we have many readers more versed in Mexican history than me, and indeed having been corrected earlier by Francesco also on this site, I am happy to agree that the Ramón and Magdalena are linked by Dylan to Pancho Villa.
I am not in a position to judge what is real and what not, but David did add the interesting thought that “Dylan is exercising poetic license here with respect to the Aztec ruins. Northern Mexico, where the story takes place, was never part of the Aztec empire and no Aztec ruins are found there. Ruins from other pre-Columbian peoples are found in the area, though, for example at Casas Grandes.” He adds in relation to another comment, “Tom is correct that the ‘serpent’s eyes of obsidian’ refers to the Feathered Serpent.”
The song was played 38 times by Dylan between October 30 1975 and October 17 2015. It is, for me a most fitting and insightful end to an era in Dylan’s writing. With the death of the outlaw at the end of the song, the curtain comes down on a singular period in Dylan’s career. When he took up songwriting again, we found we were in a new land.
But although the collaboration between Dylan the Jacques Levy ended here, Bob now retained the notion of writing about people and places, as the next song he composed was Sara.
Clearly Dylan was writing about his wife in general, since he says her name four times in each chorus, but whether he was writing about her in specifics is another matter. No one ever said songs have to be true, and the songs written just before Sara made no attempt to fix exact reality.
But it is hard to relate “Sara” back to earlier compositions this year. And what a change it was musically, for we come out of all those Mexican rhythms and find ourselves in a waltz. Although to be clear – the theme of the album of people and places is of course continued.
Musically the song is at the very least highly unusual for Dylan – perhaps even unique for Dylan in that it is in a minor key modulating to the relative major in the chorus before returning to the minor in the last line. Dylan uses minor keys rarely, and this sequence never before nor (as far as I know) since.
The chord structure, for anyone used to playing Dylan, is truly unexpected:
- The verse: Em Am D Em (repeated)
- The chorus: G Bm Am D C Em (repeated)
In effect the verse is in E minor and the chorus is in G major. And it works perfectly to give a strange backdrop to the lyrics – lyrics which talk of the background environment as well as the lady in the song.
But is it about Sara Dylan? Yes and no. Maybe and perhaps. Up to a point; but really it doesn’t matter. It is a beautiful reflective love song. The fact that we have all heard that she took half the earnings from the songs written during the marriage is really not too important in the context of the song, unless Dylan wants to write a song about that. Here he doesn’t; he wants to write a song about his love for Sara and what brought them together.
It won’t all be true, and it doesn’t have to be true. After all why would it? Dylan is the ultimate storyteller. He gets ideas from the real world and spins them into his tales – a perfectly reasonable and legitimate approach to songwriting. After all we don’t expect any of the other songs on this album to be true, so why should this? Maybe he did drink white rum in a Portugal bar, but whether he did or not doesn’t actually affect the song.
But as our correspondent Jake said, in response to my earlier review, “Sara, whoever she is, seems strangely absent. She is there, as the character’s love interest, object of devotion, etc, but we don’t learn much about her.”
Which is indeed true. As Zaphod said in a comment, “Why is she gone? Has she changed? Her love for him died? It made me sad, remembering a loss of my own.” Oh I can so relate to that!
Looking at and listening to Dylan’s songs for the remainder of the year – this unique year of people and places – I find myself now seeing Dylan as pondering. He’s done the phenomenal series of songs with Levy, he’s written Sara, and now…
… Well now we had Sign Language
It’s a song of stepping apart, of being removed. There’s a real feeling (for me if no one else) of being unsure of where to be, where to go. It is a song of separation and distance, which makes sense after “Sara”, but considering that this comes from the same year as “Isis” it hardly seems as if it could be the same composer. Although from Isis to “Sign Language” is quite an interesting journey in itself.
If we compare this with the opening of the last song written with Levy, we have…
Hot chilli peppers in the blistering sun Dust on my face and my cape Me and Magdalena on the run I think this time we shall escape.
There is comparison in the sense that Levy took the world around the central character and turned it into a way of setting the song quickly. Dylan was, perhaps, attempting to do the same, but the level is so prosaic (what is there that is interesting about eating a sandwich?) that (for me) it doesn’t work.
And perhaps Dylan felt this, which is why in effect the song writing stopped – and why there is that reference to Link Wray. This is back to the old Dylan, citing those who have influenced him. The journey really has finished – however far you want to be from Isis and Durango and the rest we surely are now there.
We’re almost at the end of the year – but Dylan still had two more little surprises in store. The first is the improvised “Patty’s Gone to Laredo”. It is not possible to put up here a copy of the single Dylan recording, and no one else seems to have recorded it, so in case you don’t have access to the song, I’ve put up a version I’ve recorded – not to try and suggest a particular insight or ability on my part, I assure you, but so you can get an idea of what the song is about, (or isn’t about, since it clearly was improvised and is far from being finished) in case you are interested and don’t have access to the single Dylan recording.
Then, finally, after all this there was indeed one more song, “What will you do when Jesus Comes?” from Renaldo and Clara.
Chris Hughes in Blasting News suggested that the post-existentialist experiences a life in which, “We need life to be occupied 24/7. We need to worry about work, money etc, because these worries distract us from existential worry. Only, if we find living difficult and troublesome, do we forget to ask, what is the point of living? The awkwardness of living provides an escape from the awareness of the futility of it all. The tedium of living needs to be horrible so that we don’t have to confront the horror that, in the end, it may all be pointless anyway.”
So when Jesus returns for the Second Coming there is every chance that we’ll be so busy with the mundane reality of life that we don’t even notice.
It’s a thought. And indeed given all the songs that have come before in this extraordinary year, he could have a point.
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