More Than Flesh And Blood (1978) part I: Lousy poetry

by Jochen Markhorst

 

I           Lousy poetry

The song lyrics Dylan writes together with Helena Springs, or the songs that are in both their names anyway, mostly have a cut-and-paste character, do make a hybrid impression. Not in a positive sense, not with the synergetic added value that songs like The Beatles’ “Getting Better” and “A Day In The Life” have thanks to collaboration, or like the chilling “Where The Wild Roses Grow” by Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue.

Or Freddy Mercury and David Bowie’s majestic world hit “Under Pressure”, the song with the number one “bassline of all time”, according to Stylus Magazine‘s Top 50 Basslines Of All Time in 2005 (i.e. before Chic’s “Good Times”, before Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and before “Walk On The Wild Side”, Pink Floyd’s “Money”, “Fever”… – so, quite debatable, all in all).

Dylan doesn’t seem to take the collaboration very seriously anyway. None of the Dylan/Springs songs are selected for recording, only a fraction of the bulk of probably about twenty songs get an occasional live performance. Which seems to be due to the most likely explanation: Dylan himself is not too impressed by the songs either. Only “Stop Now” is said to have been a candidate for Street-Legal for a while – but it has since floated away over the waters of oblivion, too.

The lyrics of “More Than Flesh And Blood” are perhaps the most unbalanced in that hybrid club, or at least the most frown-inducing. Just take the opening couplet:

You’re fighting for existence, you hate me cos I'm pure
You put a hurting on me baby and you make me insecure
But to be strong, I must be weak or else I won't endure
I love you, but I love you unaware
And that's more than flesh and blood can bear
More than flesh and blood can bear
I reach for you at midnight just to find you're never there
And it’s more than flesh and blood can bear

 

The first main clause introduces a “you” who does not have it easy: he is “fighting for existence”. In the art of song an unusual and somewhat peculiar opening. It’s a choice of words that Sir David Attenborough would use as a voice-over for the footage of a lonely penguin chick on an icy polar plain, or perhaps the caption of a poetically inclined artist under the photograph of a dandelion growing through the deck of an asphalted parking lot.

Either way, Springs and/or Dylan choose these words to introduce an antagonist. Which promises, at the very least, the portrait of a tormented soul. But in the rest of the lyrics, he turns out to be on a roll at night, hanging around at parties, driving a Cadillac and being intellectually superior (“In order to keep up with you I must go back to school,” as Helena sings in the third couplet). No elaboration, in any case, of that dramatic introduction, not even a hint of an existential struggle. The only clue is in that same opening line: you hate me cos I’m pure.

Peculiar. It is rather immodest, not to say ridiculous, to characterise yourself as “pure”, and it does not exactly push the listener’s sympathy towards the I-person. Awkwardly, it even pushes the associations to Biblical distances, to Paul in Galatians 4: “Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?”

The uncomfortable confusion evaporates – briefly – in the second line, which is reassuringly “normal”. You put a hurting on me baby and you make me insecure seems to come from a Dylan on autopilot, from the walking jukebox that effortlessly finds fragments of other people’s songs to shake a copy/paste line out of his sleeve. You put a hurting on me must have come from Etta James;

Something's got a hold on me that won't let go
I never thought it could happen to me
Got me heavy without the misery
I never thought it could be this way
Love's sure gonna put a hurting on me

… from “Something’s Got A Hold On Me”, Etta’s oft-covered 1962 hit, and in all likelihood the only song in Dylan’s baggage to contain that phrase put a hurting on me.

Just as effortlessly, the songsmith finds a rhyme to that silly you hate me cos I’m pure; skilfully in the same metre, casually assonant, he plucks you make me insecure from the catalogue. From the “Stevie Wonder” drawer, presumably;

I feel so insecure 
In my mind, I can picture 
Losing you for sure 
And the pain I can't endure

There are not many songs with the word “insecure” in them anyway. The Beatles “Help!” (But every now and then I feel so insecure), but Stevie’s 1968 hit “I’m Wondering” is about the only one in which it is also rhymed with “endure” – just like Dylan/Springs’ third line does. That third Dylan/Springs line is again unendurably weak: But to be strong, I must be weak or else I won’t endure.

Joan Baez once declared with infectious self-mockery that Dylan called her self-written songs “lousy poetry”. It makes one curious about the qualification Dylan would give to a verse like this.

Motivated, probably, by Dylan’s fondness for the paradoxical inversion. Like “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now” from “My Back Pages”, or like “He could die happily ever after” from “Tombstone Blues”, or like “If your memory serves you well” from “This Wheel’s On Fire”, and many more. But then again – in those mercurial sixties’ songs, the paradoxical reversals do have substance, a philosophical undercurrent or at least a comic effect. There’s none of that here; apart from the stylistically embarrassingly weak phrasing, the meaninglessness, the pretension and the lame argumentation – you make me insecure but to be strong I must be weak (?) interferes. With some good will, one may regard it as an allusion to Jean de la Fontaine’s “Le chêne et le roseau” (1668), the fable about the bragging, strong oak tree that goes down in the storm and the weak reed that survives precisely because of its weakness. However, this still does not erase the astonishment about the elementary school level of the style.

It is not a slip. The fourth line, I love you, but I love you unaware is just as clumsy as the first and third lines. If the “I” means that the antagonist is unaware of her love for him, the sentence is simply wrong. And if she means she is unaware of her own love for him, the sentence is completely bogus; after all, you don’t know what you don’t know. Either way, it remains a clumsy, laborious expression of feeling. Neither fish nor fowl.

Or rather: neither flesh nor blood.

To be continued. Next up: More Than Flesh And Blood part II: Johnny, that’s called songwriting.

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Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

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1 Response to More Than Flesh And Blood (1978) part I: Lousy poetry

  1. Morten Jonssson says:

    It’s not great lyric writing, but it’s not as incoherent as you make it out. The general theme of loving someone who’s not good for you, of trying to separate the spiritual from the fleshly, is clear enough throughout; the song doesn’t go off into random proclamations like more recent lyrics.

    In the first verse, I think “But to be strong, I must be weak” is rooted in the self-help, popular psychology language of the time. It isn’t meaningless; the thought is that true strength means allowing yourself to be vulnerable; if you try always to be strong, you’ll break eventually. Like a Japanese skyscraper, which would collapse during an earthquake if it were built to be absolutely rigid, but survives by swaying with the movement of the earth.

    “Insecure” sounds like the same sort of discourse–the language of getting in touch with your feelings.

    “I love you, but I love you unaware” doesn’t make much sense on the face of it. It could mean that the singer’s love for the other sneaks up on her, that she sometimes isn’t aware that’s what she’s feeling. Or “unaware” could mean “unthinkingly,” not considering the consequences. I’m pretty sure there’s a thought in there, but it doesn’t quite come through.

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