Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You (1969) part 3 … and cheating husbands

 

by Jochen Markhorst

III         … and cheating husbands

Dylan is quite firm, in the interview he gives to John Cohen and Happy Traum in the summer of 1968, to give the ailing folk music magazine Sing Out! a financial boost: “The song has to be of a certain quality for me to sing and put on a record. One aspect it would have to have is that it didn’t repeat itself. I shy away from those songs which repeat phrases, bars and verses, bridges…” Actually, Dylan says, he wanted to record a whole album of other peoples songs, but “about nine-tenths of all the contemporary material being written” has those damned repeating phrases and bridges, so he went back to writing his own songs. Songs like “The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest” and “All Along The Watchtower”, so we don’t have to be too sad about Dylan’s alleged dislike of choruses and bridges.

Fortunately, the bard is not too principled either. For his most recent album, John Wesley Harding, which is the thread of the conversation, he already plucked “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” from the motel room air of the Ramada Inn in Nashville – a beautiful song which repeats phrases, bars and verses, and a bridge it has as well. It is not a one-off slip-up, not a rule-confirming exception. Six months after his declaration of principle, Dylan wholeheartedly embraces all those artifacts he so resolutely rejected; “To Be Alone With You”, “I Threw It All Away”, “Peggy Day”, “One More Night”, “Tell Me That It Isn’t True”, “Country Pie”… almost every song on Nashville Skyline repeats phrases, bars and verses, and has a bridge too. And in “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” he doesn’t “shy away from” a bridge either:

Is it really any wonder
The love that a stranger might receive
You cast your spell and I went under
I find it so difficult to leave

Textually, a hotchpotch of clichés. Mostly from recent radio hits, it seems. Is it any wonder Dylan has been hearing since he first played Hank Williams’ records (“Kaw-Liga”, for instance), and he hears the words every week on the radio. “So Sad” by The Everly Brothers, Ella Fitzgerald’s “Walking In The Sunshine”, “I’m In The Mood For Love”, “Gentleman Friend”, Cliff Richards’ “I Only Came To Say Goodbye”… the list is endless. Apparently, we find it a nice word combination to sing. Equally chewed out and indestructible are all the word combinations with under your spell. “Don’t Blame Me”, of course, but otherwise everyone from Sinatra to Buck Owens and from “Black Magic Woman” to The Everly Brothers. And especially “I Put A Spell On You”, obviously. And the third pillar under the bridge also is a third grab in the goldie-oldie box: the combination love-stranger is just as stereotypical as any wonder and as under a spell. One of the Four Tops’ greatest hits, for example. “Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over)” still sounds often enough on the radio these days and can be found in any jukebox:

They say "She don't love him, she don't love him"
They say my heart's in danger
'Cause you're leaving me
For the love of a stranger

In terms of content, the middle-eight builds, as befits a classic middle-eight, a bridge to a better understanding. Though it seems to completely elude analysts like Clinton Heylin (who understands a “message of reassurance”), Robert Shelton (“commitment to a love”) and Michael Gray (“a deliberate announcement of the fall from restlessness”) that the first-person narrator is an utterly unstable, emotion-driven rolling stone. The critics seem to be fueled by biographical facts, by their knowledge of Dylan’s recent domestic, rural status as a young, newlywed father who has said goodbye to the frenzy of rock star life. Conveniently, they assume, as annoyingly do many Dylanologists, that the “I” is Dylan himself, and they also don’t appear to look much further than the title to conclude that I, Dylan, is here wording his farewell to the restless feeling. And expresses a moving pledge of allegiance to his dear wife Sara, something like that.

Both Heylin and Shelton and Gray write this in the twenty-first century, when Dylan has been saying, in variants, for nearly fifty years now: je est un autre. The “I” in my songs is not “I, Bob Dylan”. In vain, though.

In the bridge, the lyricist quite unambiguously confirms what has already been suggested in the previous lines: the first-person narrator is not a loving husband bidding farewell to his troubled life, but rather a stranger passing by, following an impulse. He doesn’t belong in this town at all, was already on his way to the station with his suitcase, probably heading home, but falls under the spell of some village beauty. Impulsively, he decides not to return to his troubles, he decides to throw away his train ticket and to stay the night with this irresistible lady. Granted, imperatives like “Throw my ticket out the window” can with a little tolerance be interpreted metaphorically, as poetic expressions of a desire to say goodbye to the hectic life of a restless rock star. But verses like “I should have left this town this morning” and “The love that a stranger might receive” do not fit into such a pliable interpretation – it really would take some surreal acrobatics to interpret them as romantic family man rhetoric. No, these are really the words of a cheating debaucher about to indulge in a one-night stand.

Dylan is in a motel in Nashville, after all. The classic décor of an extramarital escapade. In the town where “all the songs coming out of the studios then were about slut wives cheating on their husbands or vice versa.”

To be continued. Next up: Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You part 4: The cadence of click-clack

 

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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2 Responses to Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You (1969) part 3 … and cheating husbands

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    Of course, Jochen is from the emoted-words-have-no-meaning school of Dylanology – it’s only the music and rhymatic sound that counts-

    And so can he throw in any silly ironic ‘autre’ interpretation he wishes in order to prove he is correct in that assessment ….

    It’s such a dirty ol’ song!

    The slutty lady likely came to him “at dawn”.

  2. Larry fyffe says:

    Back farther in Americana:

    Oh I thought I heard that steamboat whistle a-blow
    And she blowed like she never blowed before …
    I’m afraid my little lover’s on that boat
    (Shirkey & Harper: Steamboat Man)

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