To Be Alone With You (1969): III  Shadow Kingdom

by Jochen Markhorst

III         Shadow Kingdom

“His playing would rip your head off,” says John Fogerty in his autobiography, very Dylanesque, about bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs. Fogerty, like Dylan in Chronicles, has in his own memoir Fortunate Son (2015) a sympathetic tendency to swoon in often poetic, though sometimes alienating superlatives over musicians he admires. With great overlap, by the way. Hank Williams (“Your Cheatin’ Heart just slayed me”), Link Wray, Charley Patton, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard… well, Fogerty, of course, has also exhaustively demonstrated his deep-rooted love of country and bluegrass (most notably on his solo debut, the 1973 country tribute record The Blue Ridge Rangers).

Anyway, Earl Scruggs. Dylan’s awe is visible, in the documentary shot in 1970, Earl Scruggs – His Family and Friends. The soundtrack of the same name (released 2005) features five Dylan songs. Three that Earl performs with Joan Baez (“Love Is Just A Four Letter Word”, “It Ain’t Me, Babe” with Baez’s witty Dylan imitation, and “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”), one with The Byrds (“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”, of course) and one with Dylan himself: “Nashville Skyline Rag”. In the documentary, we see another song played by the two legends together (the age-old classic “East Virginia Blues”), but not the two songs played by Scruggs, his sons Randy and Gary, and Dylan: “Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance” and… “To Be Alone With You”. The mono recordings of these are finally heard on disc 3 of The Bootleg Series 15 – Travelin’ Thru, 1967-1969 (2019).

The session takes place on 17 May 1970, half a year after the Rolling Stone interview in which Dylan dreams about Jerry Lee Lewis adding the song to his repertoire. Apparently, Dylan has given up hope, and now suspects that he can do Earl Scruggs a favour with it. But he is not an inspired salesman. We hear Dylan’s hesitant beginning, he seems to be looking for the melody, then he starts in the middle of the song, on the second line of the second verse (“At the close of day”), sings that second verse twice, and the rest of the song is not very steady either – he changes lines, forgets words and makes up other, hardly impressive words on the spot. It is, all in all, justifiable that documentary maker David Hoffman left this fragment on the cutting floor.

For the time being, it is the last time Dylan will concern himself with “To Be Alone With You”. The song disappears into a drawer and is only retrieved twenty years later: its live debut is 15 October 1989 in Pennsylvania. As an opener even. Dylan seems to be in a conservative country mood these days. “Man In The Long Black Coat” is also performed for the first time this week, the setlist includes songs like the Civil War ballad “Two Soldiers”, “Precious Memories”, “Lakes Of Pontchartrain” and “Barbara Allen”… but “To Be Alone With You” has become a solid, energetic Jerry Lee Lewis-like rocker. And he seems pleased with it. The song remains on the set list, always as the opener, and is also taken to Europe the following year; Dylan opens his concerts in Paris and London with “To Be Alone With You” as well. The song becomes a mainstay of the Never Ending Tour; apart from 1997 it is on the setlist every year, and, until its temporary retirement in 2005, is eventually performed 123 times.

This time the song seems to have been discarded for good. In the fourteen years from 2006 until the covid emergency stop in 2019, Dylan performs more than 1200 times, and “To Be Alone With You” remains in the drawer. But then it’s 2021, Dylan rejoices fans with the online “concert” Shadow Kingdom and surprises them with wonderful interpretations, beautiful performances and, above all, the resurrection of a fully restored “To Be Alone With You”.

To Be Alone With You (Shadow Kingdom): https://youtu.be/9XG9bRMb0x8

The rock ‘n’ roll is gone. Actually, so is the country. The accordion gives the song a Tex-Mex flavour, Dylan’s recitation tends towards vaudeville, the band towards pop, but above all: almost every line of the lyrics has been changed.

Text changes in themselves are not too remarkable with Dylan, but such a radical and complete text revision is – we only know it from a handful of songs from the bard’s immense oeuvre. “Down Along The Cove”, “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking”, a few songs of which he later (largely) returns to the original lyrics (“Tangled Up In Blue”, “Simple Twist Of Fate”)… there are not many more.

Dylan is a few times asked about these frequent and sometimes radical changes of lyrics. In the fascinating interview for SongTalk (with Paul Zollo, April ’91) he kind of shrugs his shoulders:

“They’re songs. They’re not written in stone. They’re on plastic. Somebody told me that Tennyson often wanted to rewrite his poems once he saw them in print.”

… and similar vagueness (“The original lyrics weren’t fair to me because they just didn’t feel right at the time,” regarding “Tangled Up In Blue”). Fascinating it is nevertheless – if only because it offers a glimpse into the creative mind of a Nobel Prize-winning poet.

The original first verse, like the rest of the lyrics, is not too titanic – written on plastic, indeed:

To be alone with you
Just you and me
Now won’t you tell me true
Ain’t that the way it oughta be?
To hold each other tight
The whole night through
Ev’rything is always right
When I’m alone with you

Okay, the rhyme scheme (abab-caca) is quite unusual, but the content is a saltless accumulation of clichés. Maybe that’s what triggers Dylan to change it fifty years later to:

To be alone with you, just you and I
Under the moon, ’neath the star-spangled sky
I know you’re alive, and I am too
My one desire is to be alone with you

Which is a bit puzzling. At first glance, the changes are hardly spectacular. In Lyrics and other official publications, the stanzas are indeed formatted as eight-line stanzas, but during the rewriting session Dylan apparently structured it the way he sings it: four lines, quatrains, and the simplest rhyme scheme (aabb). Perhaps the poet has indeed searched for a Verlaine-like mosaic of rhyme and assonance; you in line 1 assonant with moon in line 2; sky in line 2 with I in line 3; alive in line 3 with desire in line 4… too consistent to be coincidental, in any case. However, this melodious artifice is abandoned right from verse two – the poet has either already grown tired of it, or this steady pattern of assonances indeed was accidental.

In terms of content, again at first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much going on either; at most, one wonders why Dylan took the trouble to replace one cliché with another. Under the moon, my one desire, the star spangled sky… all as clichéd as the whole night through and hold each other tight. But then there is that one line, that one splinter that makes the listener look up: “I know you’re alive, and I am too”. A line that would rip your head off.

To be continued. Next up: To Be Alone With You part 4: Beware of his promise

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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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