by Jochen Markhorst
I To have and have not
In 2004, out of 22,838 entries from 111 countries, Habseligkeiten is chosen as “German word of the year”. The jury, which included singer/songwriter Herbert Grönemeyer and author Uwe Timm, state that they are touched by the “friendly, pitying undertone”, and at the same time it makes the owner of Habseligkeiten seem “sympathetic and lovable”.
It indeed is a wonderful word. It means more than just “possessions”. Lexically, it connects two areas of life: earthly possessions (haben, “to have, to possess”) and the bliss (Seligkeit, “bliss, benediction”) that is unattainable in earthly life. This tension leads the reader to have positive feelings towards the owner of the Habseligkeiten. The love for the small, in itself perhaps worthless things is understood as a “condition for happiness”.
“In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister, only in confinement the master reveals himself”, Goethe asserts, as if to explain why he is making things so difficult for himself, in the 1780s. The by then long world-famous poet escapes his degeneration into a magistrate and the stifling court life in Weimar, takes a sabbatical of three years in Italy (1786-88) and returns born again: back to the Antiques it shall be. With all the restrictions that entails: stripped-down tragedies without scenery, a minimum of action, hardly any supporting actors and endless monologues in Alexandrian lines. Tightly drawn poetry within strictly defined frameworks of fixed rhythm and rhyme. Retellings of material that has existed for centuries (Iphigenia in Tauris, for instance).
Within all these limitations, Goethe says, it takes mastery to be able to move and captivate. And, sure enough, there is something to be said for that. We admire The A-Team, getting locked up in an old shed once again, and then managing to construct a bazooka with the devastating power of a hydrogen bomb only using objets trouvés like rubber bands, rusty drawing pins and chicken wire. Or the unworldly surgeon who performs life-saving emergency surgery on the floor of the airport departure lounge with the help of a straw, a pocketknife and a biro – in der Beschränkung zeigt sich der Meister.
The genesis of the tight, minimalist masterpiece “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” gives no reason to think that its creation was a deliberate attempt to create a masterpiece within self-imposed limitations. But the rigid frameworks within which Dylan squeezes the song do suggest it.
On Wednesday 12 February 1969, Dylan arrives in Nashville with only half an album of songs in his suitcase. The rest for Nashville Skyline will be either written on the spot or improvised (such as the opening track, “Girl From The North Country” in duet with Johnny Cash). In June, when Jann Wenner interviews him for Rolling Stone, Dylan says:
“The first time I went into the studio I had, I think, four songs. I pulled that instrumental one out… I needed some songs with an instrumental… Then Johnny came in and did a song with me. Then I wrote one in the motel… Then pretty soon the whole album started fillin’ in together and we had an album.”
… but that seems a bit too modest. “To Be Alone With You”, “I Threw It All Away”, “One More Night”, “Lay Lady Lay” and “Western Road” are recorded on Thursday 13 February in a session that, according to the recording sheets, lasts until 12 o’clock in the evening. The next day, “Peggy Day”, “Tell Me That It Isn’t True” and “Country Pie” were also recorded – eight songs, so it seems likely that Dylan arrived with more than four songs, two days ago.
The album, for which Dylan is still considering the title John Wesley Harding Vol. 2, is missing a closing track like “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”, et voilà: over the weekend, Dylan shakes a song out of his sleeve on the hotel stationery of the Ramada Inn. Which is then recorded after the instrumental album filler “Nashville Skyline Rag” on Monday 17 February, when the working week has started again.
That song, “one I wrote in the motel”, must be “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”, which provides a fascinating glimpse into Dylan’s working methods. Apparently, the world’s best songwriter with performance pressure feels comfortable in a tight corset. He chooses quintins in an unusual rhyme scheme: ABCCB. It’s somewhat archaic – an 11th-century archetype of the limerick has such a scheme, William Wordsworth uses it for “The Idiot Boy” (1798), and it provides a somewhat nursery rhyme-like playfulness – but Dylan just uses the same rhyme scheme he chose for “I Threw It All Away”:
I once held her in my arms She said she would always stay But I was cruel I treated her like a fool I threw it all away
… which he recorded the day before yesterday. In terms of content, obviously, diametrically the opposite of “I Threw It All Away”; the narrator in “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” is on the other side of a love’s affair time-line, is still in the very early stage of embracing his happiness of love unconditionally:
Throw my ticket out the window Throw my suitcase out there, too Throw my troubles out the door I don’t need them anymore ’Cause tonight I’ll be staying here with you
Apart from that remarkable rhyme scheme, the cast-iron, again somewhat old-fashioned metre catches the ear: all verse lines work towards the refrain line with a four-foot trochee (DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da), with a trochaic tetrameter, as the schoolmaster would say. Not necessarily very uncommon in the art of song, but unusual nonetheless. And very classical. Beethoven’s Ninth for instance (“Ode To Joy”, Freude schöner Götterfunken). Wordsworth’s “Song Of Hiawatha”, the Weird Sisters in MacBeth (“Fair is foul, and foul is fair / Hover through the fog and filthy air”).
And, again, nursery rhymes. Dr. Seuss’ One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish. “Peter Pumpkin Eater” is perhaps the best-known shortcut to identify a trochaic tetrameter (Peter Peter pumpkin eater / Had a wife and couldn’t keep her). And a work that keeps popping up in Dylan’s output, William Blake’s “The Tyger” (Tyger! Tyger! burning bright / In the forests of the night).
Attractive, but indeed not very common. The trochee simply clashes with our “natural” sense of rhythm, our sense of language that automatically steers us towards iambic rhythm structures. This may also explain the seemingly lazy opening, the somewhat easy choice to start three times with “throw my … out”. Still, a Goethe would have imposed a limitation like this on himself to demonstrate mastery in the continuation of those restrictive opening words. In which Dylan also succeeds, by the surprising turn from symbolic, but concrete possessions (ticket and suitcase) to immaterial inner stirrings, to the troubles that also go out the door. Habseligkeiten.
To be continued. Next up: Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You part 2: Slut wives cheating
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:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
- Street-Legal: Bob Dylan’s unpolished gem from 1978