By Tony Attwood
This is episode 38 of All Directions of Once. The last two articles were…
Please do click on the link above for the index to the whole series. This article deals with the final compositions for Street Legal, and the opening work with Helena Springs.
After writing “No time to think” in 1977, a song which I argued in my last piece in this series is an absolute masterpiece, Bob Dylan composed three more songs in the year, all of which were included in Street Legal: “True Love Tends to Forget”, “We better talk this over” and “Where are you tonight?”
And we can imagine that Bob was having some difficulties here. First, “No time to think” an utter monument, which must have been exhausting to write. In any other situation, we might have expected the artist to now have a break, but of course with the demand of an album, and all the inner turmoil of the end of a marriage that was not possible. Dylan had to keep writing to enable all his thoughts to come out, and he knew he also had to complete the album.
But by way of introduction, let’s experience once more the extraordinary piece that Dylan now had to set aside in order to write something fresh…
Not surprisingly the level of extraordinary brilliance seen so far could not be maintained, and “True Love” which came next is in almost every way is a less entrancing song. “Almost every way” because it still has a lyrical and musical highpoint in the very unexpected middle 8:
I was lyin' down in the reeds without any oxygen I saw you in the wilderness among the men. Saw you drift into infinity and come back again All you got to do is wait and I'll tell you when.
And indeed Dylan must have known he’d created something special because very unusually for a middle 8, it is repeated, and repeated, in fact taking the place of a chorus.
This mid-section of the song opens by moving down a tone into the blues-orientated flattened 7th, going back to the tonic, back down to the 4th, then suddenly into the minor… Musically it is extraordinary. Far more powerful than the music in the rest of the song!
And the lyrics – any attempt at a literal meaning is pointless, for there is none beyond the fact that he saw her and was overwhelmed by her, but he isn’t quite ready.
“True love tends to forget” is as the title suggests a song of regret and moving on – and it is a song that outside of the middle 8 contains none of the intricacies of “No time to think” either in its musical construction, its lyrics or its rhyme.
And it is curious that this is followed by “We better talk this over”, since “True Love” suggests there is nothing to talk over. But then, when the mind is in turmoil over the end of a relationship, logic rarely gets in the way.
Given that we have no indication of any songs that were tried out and then not used on the album it really does look as if Bob was writing to order – and as such the quality was extraordinarily high. We can hardly complain if the occasional song slips from the extraordinarily high standards set elsewhere.
Here we have yet another lost love song. The explanation is that it is over, but he wishes (sometimes) it wasn’t or even thinks (sometimes) maybe it isn’t. Or it is, but he knows he can’t accept it.
But most interestingly from a musical point of view is the fact that once more we have a song saved by a middle 8 – Bob has clearly taken note of what he has experiemented with previously. The rhyme is perhaps somewhat forced but the meaning and the music are both so powerful.
You don’t have to be afraid of looking into my face We’ve done nothing to each other time will not erase
And the other constant through these songs is still there, for Dylan is above all in these masterful works playing with words, seeing where they will take him. Just consider…
Let’s call it a day go our own different way Before we decay.
Who else would even consider that? It just stops us short.
But the end is something else in terms of the end of the relationship. Has anyone ever described such a moment like this before?
I guess I’ll be leaving tomorrow If I have to beg, steal or borrow It’d be great to cross paths in a day and a half Look at each other and laugh But I don’t think it’s liable to happen Like the sound of one hand clappin’ The vows that we kept are now broken and swept ’Neath the bed where we slept
The one-off final performance of the song shows us exactly what this could be, but seemingly Bob just couldn’t quite find the way to express his emotions constantly at the time. And given the high quality of his writing during this period we can hardly blame him for that.
And so we come to the last song in the sequence… Where are you tonight? (Journey through the Dark Heat).
Here, we might feel, as with several other songs in this collection, that each line is a song in its own right, but there is more to it than that because of the length of the verse – no matter how many times one hears it, the fact is that the second four lines catch one out – it feels like we have had the bulk of the verse after four long lines, but then another four come tumbling in, all with the same melody and that same, incredibly simple, endless, I IV chord sequence. The pressure builds and builds, and only then do we finally hit the dominant chord and find a way out.
Then it’s back to that relentless I IV…
There’s a woman I long to touch and I miss her so much but she’s drifting like a satellite. There’s a neon light ablaze in this green smoky haze, laughter down on Elizabeth Street
This is extraordinary writing and it works because the images are so visual, so varied and hence so powerful, and most of all it works because the music is so fitting.
And a lonesome bell tone in that valley of stone where she bathed in a stream of pure heat.
It doesn’t matter whether it makes sense or not. It simply is Hard Rain, re-worked years later. This is where the darling young one has been, and in the end the lines tell us where we are, what sort of world we are in… It is the summation of all the songs already written for the album.
For no, he hasn’t gone out and revealed the truth everywhere as he promised with lines such as
I'll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest Where the people are many and their hands are all empty Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Likewise, he has not always spoken out
Where black is the color, where none is the number And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin' But I'll know my song well before I start singin'
Because somehow, it seems, the song was never fully learned for …
The truth was obscure, too profound and too pure, to live it you have to explode.
And it all came down to personal relationships as
She could feel my despair as I climbed up her hair and discovered her invisible self.
And we hear the conclusion with the last selection of I IV chords ends…
If you don’t believe there’s a price for this sweet paradise, remind me to show you the scars.
Was Dylan reminded of this, years further on, when he said, “I’ve still got the scars that the sun doesn’t heal?” Quite possibly – it’s hard now not to listen to “Not Dark Yet” and not remember this earlier venture into such thoughts.
And yet despite this failure to deliver on the message of hope that was offered in Hard Rain, he can still rejoice in the fact that he is still here, still alive, still singing…
There’s a new day at dawn and I’ve finally arrived. If I’m there in the morning, baby, you’ll know I’ve survived. I can’t believe it, I can’t believe I’m alive, But without you it just doesn’t seem right. Oh, where are you tonight?
Has the situation of lost love ever been summarized so perfectly? The man who sang of his love in “Isis” is back, and he’s just had some more amazing experiences. He’s “stayed at a lot of people’s houses which had poetry books and poetry volumes” and he’s read them all.
And yes of course there is a train, there’s always a train. Train’s were there as early as 1962 in the first, stunning, overwhelming masterpiece
Sad I’m sittin’ on the railroad track, Watchin’ that old smokestack. Train is a-leavin’ but it won’t be back.
But just as “Ballad for a Friend” is, as far as we know, fiction, so “Where Are You Tonight?” does not have to be the truth. Maybe it is, but that is not the point. It is just an expression of feeling, not reality.
If you want to know more, I thoroughly recommend Jochen’s consideration of the piece. It’s fun, and it really reveals where the notions in the song come from.
- “Where Are You Tonight?” Chanson d’automne
- The first two Spanish sestets
- From Rapunzel to the Battle of Passchendaele
But as Jochen notes, ‘In the end, the poet Dylan uses the images from Grimm’s fairy tales only superficially – just as superficially as, for example, the references to Roman mythology in “Changing Of The Guards”, to Charley Patton in “New Pony” or to Jesus in “Señor”.’
Indeed, Dylan had found a way to use the turmoil of emotions and feelings that he felt over the breakup of his marriage and the fight over access to his children, to create a set of what I find some of the most amazing and extraordinary pieces of music he has ever written. And why not bring in some fairy tales? As I said, he was after all, fighting over the issue of access to his children.
The only problem musically was, he didn’t yet have an album’s worth.
The remaining two songs from the album were written the following year – “New Pony”, and “Baby Stop Crying”, while in between Bob’s new-found hobby of writing songs with Helena Springs was being explored for the first time.
Perhaps it was through feeling exhausted from his earlier writing, or perhaps through having simply run out of ideas, or perhaps because he couldn’t write anything more about his marital disharmony, Dylan now went back to his traditional approach: he picked up a Charley Patton song from 1929, “Pony Blues” (1929) and it got his brain going once more. The image of the new pony is sexual – it always has been through the blues; the story is about the end of a relationship (ditto).
Even the name is amended from elsewhere (Jochen has saved me the trouble of looking it up: it is Arthur Crudup’s “Black Pony Blues” recorded in 1941, with bits of Dylan put in between).
It’s a fun reworking of the traditions and there’s nothing wrong with that, but given that all of the songs written so far have a theme, it is strange to have this piece plopped down among the rest of the album. But then, that has often been the way through the history of pop and rock. The music is controlled by the medium – the allotted length of the 45rpm single, the LP and then the CD, not to mention the unwillingness of radio DJs to play anything over three minutes long. Pop and rock have always been art forms controlled by the medium.
And then, after one derivative piece we get another: the joint composition, “If I don’t be there by morning” written with Helena Springs – one of many joint compositions that followed.
There’s again a borrowing here, this time from “Friend of the Devil” written by Robert Hunter and Gerry Garcia and recorded by Grateful Dead.
Blue sky upon the horizon, Private eye on my trail, And if I don’t be there by morning She’ll know that I must’ve spent the night in jail.
The song is not listed on BobDylan.com as a Dylan composition although the Clapton album clearly lists it as Dylan/Springs. (And I wonder in passing if Dylan’s share was sold along with all the rest of his publishing rights. I guess so).
It’s a 12 bar blues, and Clapton doesn’t have much commercial success with it, but unlike Dylan who won’t touch it, Clapton can’t leave it alone. And it is certainly possible to see what attracted him.
First, it is written (or at least it is performed by Clapton) in B. Which is very, very unusual. Indeed I can’t think of any pop or rock song I’ve ever been asked to perform in B (although that could just be my memory failing as I get older).
But then we have the middle section which is, well, even odder than B. It’s not really a middle 8 at all, it is an appendix to the verse. The lyrics are simplicity themselves ( see below) but the chords…. Well! Not only is it in B but it is now going
F#m, B, E, F#m, B, C, C#, F#
OK if you are not a musician that is just a load of gibberish, but believe me it is strange. F sharp minor (F#m) is not a chord one generally finds in the key of B, and yet we go straight from it back to B, and then E (a chord you would expect to find when playing in B).
And then towards the end of the middle 8 we have B, C, C#, F# – no wonder Clapton loved this because the guitar maestro is given opportunities here that he surely had never contemplated before. Believe me you simply don’t write songs that go B, C, C#…
All of which makes me think that either Bob was larking around with his newfound friend, or else Ms Springs was thinking, “I’ll show Bob I can write original stuff too”. Either way when we have
Finding my way back to you girl, Lonely and blue and mistreated too. Sometimes I think of you girl, Is it true that you think of me too?
Dull words, but musically it works. And yep, in my band playing days if someone had given me a song with that middle 8, I’d have grabbed it. The fun you can have…
I’ve not read a definitively assertive note about who wrote what in this co-composition, but the general view is that Ms Springs always took second place to the maestro in the songwriting department. But no, I don’t hear it like that. Perhaps (although I doubt it) Bob wrote all the lyrics, but to argue he wrote the music means accepting he then decided suddenly to use a musical construction he never ever used before or since in a solo song (and to good effect, within the context). Or at the very, very least we have to allow that Ms Springs wrote the middle 8. And if she wrote that, she probably wrote most of the rest of the music, which, in comparison, would have been much easier to write.
I suspect, contrary to most other commentators, Helena Springs wrote most of this song, Bob added a few bits, but later it was agreed to put it in the Dylan catalogue to maximise sales – and possibly give a few pennies to Ms Springs as and when the entire catalogue was sold.
That’s a guess of course. But it’s less of a guess than simply asserting Bob wrote it, without any evidence or commentary on the construction. I’m sure, Bob just wouldn’t write that chord sequence. Nor, in my view, those words, although that’s a harder one to prove.
Footnote: Sorry these pieces are getting so long. It’s not deliberate, it just seems to take quite a while to unravel the ebb and flow of Bob, his life, and his writing. And here’s a funny thing: there is no Wikipedia article on Helena Springs.
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