Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You part 6: A mattress and sand letters

by Jochen Markhorst

VI         A mattress and sand letters

Throw my ticket out the window                               Throw my ticket in the wind
Throw my suitcase out there, too                              Throw my mattress out there too
Throw my troubles out the door                                Draw my letters in the sand,
I don’t need them anymore                                         ’cause you got to understand
’cause tonight I’ll be staying here with you              that tonight I’ll be staying here with you

 The Rolling Thunder Revue kicks off in late October 1975, and one of the many pleasant surprises is the live debut of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” at the 22nd concert of the tour, on Saturday, November 22 in Waltham, Massachusetts. Surprising, this rehabilitation, but even more remarkable is the complete, sweeping restoration; almost every verse has been changed. And there is a third surprise, which seems to be a present for the steadily growing army of Dylanologists.

The first two more serious Dylan biographies were published in the previous years (Toby Thompson’s Positively Main Street: An unorthodox view of Bob Dylan and Anthony Scaduto’s Bob Dylan, both 1972). And Dylan, of course, has had plenty to contend with, from the likes of A.J. Weberman, the garbage scavenger, to the intrusive fans who think they can invade his privacy, to the remorseless, bootlicking “journalists”, who all think they can distil the most intimate private matters from his song lyrics. Heroin addiction, homosexuality, anarchistic beliefs, messianic qualities, adultery… you name it. Dylan’s image and the misty quality of many of his lyrics unleash a great deal of creativity and obsessiveness, and correspondingly many painfully stupid conclusions about the man’s private life – mostly because a significant faction of Dylanologists stubbornly believes that every “I” in the songs is “I, Bob Dylan”.

As if to trigger that faction, Dylan announces the song twice with a teaser. “The next one is also a true story,” he says 27 November in Bangor, after “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll”. And four days later, in Toronto: “Here’s another true story comin’ up.”

It gives extra weight to the second surprise, to the textual changes. At least, it does suggest that Dylan has deleted the “untrue” elements, and that the text has become “true” because of these corrections. In any case, it is immediately clear that Dylan took the revision seriously. In the first verse, for instance, the metre is corrected – it is still trochaic tetrameters, but each line now has a correctly stressed, masculine, ending. In the original lyrics, the opening line still had an unstressed, feminine ending. It seems to explain the rather meaningless change from “out the window” to “in the wind”.

 

Less traceable is the utterly radical change of verse two, from “Throw my suitcase out there, too” to “Throw my mattress out there too”. Technically almost identical; same number of syllables, same rhythm, male ending, but for some reason a scratching and rewriting Dylan has changed suitcase to mattress. Stylistically, a minor, insignificant enhancement with a thin alliteration (my mattress), but that debatable enhancement is completely overshadowed by the quite drastic change to the enigmatic command of the I-person, who demands that his apparently strong and muscular mistress throws out his mattress – for otherwise unclear reasons. But, mind you, this is “a true story”. So maybe it was an air mattress. Still, apart from the presumed physical challenge the antagonist is facing here, the symbolism is particularly disturbing: the removal of the lover’s sleeping place does not at all match the love message tonight I’ll be staying here with you.

It is a fairly recent intervention. On CD1 of The Bootleg Series 15 – The Rolling Thunder Revue (2019), we can listen to the rehearsal of the song on 19 October in New York, and here is no mention of a mattress. The line there is, “Throw my troubles out there too”, and no mattress appears in the rest of the lyrics either. The same applies to the equally curious follow-up line, Draw my letters in the sand. This line is not sung in the rehearsal either, and ambiguous it is as well, to say the least. After all, letters in the sand signal transience, brevity, impermanence. In fact, since 1957, since Pat Boone scored a major hit with the time-honoured “Love Letters In The Sand”, an inescapable connotation – and Dylan, who most likely has Gene Austin’s 1931 version on a pedestal, knows that too.

It is, all in all, a somewhat alienating rewriting. In the rest of the lyrics, almost every line has been rewritten too, but those rewritings are all in line with the protagonist’s original state of love. “Your love was all that mattered”, for instance, and ‘You came down on me like rolling thunder”. There is no “leakage” from other songs either, as is sometimes the case with Dylan. The surrounding songs in this show, and during the tour in general, are all mattress-less and sandletter-free. At most, “mattress” recalls 1966’s “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”, recalls the bizarre line “You know it balances on your head just like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine” – apparently, the mere word “mattress” inspires frenzies. And Dylan used it before as an attribute to represent exceptional physical strength of the female counterpart:

“love is gentleness – softness – creaminess” says Phaedra – who is now having a pillow fight – her weapon, a mattress – she stands on a deserted marshmallow,”

…like in his poetic prose explosion Tarantula, in which Phaedra does not, as it should be, swings a pillow during a pillow fight, but the whole mattress.

On the other hand, perhaps Dylan’s mind is again “normally” haunted by Johnny Cash, who recently had a minor hit with the potentially charming, but unfortunately rather overproduced (saccharine violins, terrible ladies’ choir) “Papa Was a Good Man”;

It rained all the way to Cincinnati
With our mattress on top of the car
Us kids were eatin' crackers and baloney
And papa kept on driving never stopped once at a bar

Little in common with “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”, that’s true. But that mattress has to come from somewhere.

To be continued. Next up: Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You part 7: A Spider’s Life On Mars

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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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3 Responses to Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You part 6: A mattress and sand letters

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    There’s a time-line problem to contend with in the re-written song-

    Who’s to say which consonance double-‘t’, supposedly “random”, change came to Dylan’s mind first –

    1) Mattress
    2) Letters
    3) Little
    4) Mattered

    Both ‘suitcase’ and ‘mattress’ (ie, not ‘bed’) suggesting a short-say.

  2. Larry fyffe says:

    *stay

  3. Larry fyffe says:

    5) Scattered

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