To Be Alone With You (1969) part 4: Beware of his promise

by Jochen Markhorst

IV         Beware of his promise

Frankie Valli likes to act and does it quite well. Mostly mafioso types (Miami Vice, Witness To The Mob, The Sopranos), but his music career always comes first. “They made all the changes for me and rescheduled shooting because they knew I was on tour a lot,” he says in the interview with SongFacts (July 2014), “… and I knew I had to be killed off. Either that or I’d have to quit my touring business.” That role in The Sopranos (as Rusty Millio, “The Mayor of Munchkinville”) is memorable and provides yet another boost to Valli’s already impressive, nearly sixty-year career.

When the interviewer asks him about the secret behind the success of that endless string of hits (Valli has scored 39 Billboard Top 40 hits with and without the Four Seasons, seven of them No. 1 and eleven Top 10 hits), Valli has a simple and rather Dylanesque explanation: you got to change, you got to go to new places. And great songs. “You need to have great songs. It always boils down to the same thing.”

That is indeed a special talent of Valli and his comrades: recognising a great song. “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You”, “December, 1963”, “Beggin'”, “Working My Way Back To You”… great songs, evergreens by now, whose potential was first recognised by The Four Seasons. It doesn’t always work out, Valli tells us. Their recording of Boz Scaggs’ “We’re All Alone”, for example, was rejected by the record company and six months later Rita Coolidge scored her worldwide hit with it. And Valli himself was very fond of “The Night”, which was not promoted, did not become a hit, but – through mysterious ways – somehow reached the Top 10 in the UK three years later.

Part of the song’s success is undoubtedly due to its northern soul vibe, and to the trend of English DJs seeking to popularise forgotten and overlooked records. Sometimes with overwhelming success; “Tainted Love” is an obscure B-side to a totally flopped single from 1965 (“My Bad Boy’s Comin’ Home”, by Gloria Jones), and is after its success in the English clubs in ’76 recorded again by the enchanting Gloria (produced by her life partner Marc Bolan, by the way). Again fails to chart, but is noticed by the wardrobe boy, Marc Almond, the colourful bird of paradise who elevates the song to a world hit in 1981 with his Soft Cell. Almond too, at least twice, has that enviable talent for unleashing hidden hit potential. In Soft Cell’s repertoire, “Tainted Love” replaces Almond’s initial first choice, “The Night” (which Soft Cell still will record in 2003) – which, incidentally, would probably have been a hit as well, if it hadn’t been for “Tainted Love”.

The appeal of both “Tainted Love” and “The Night” to Almond can be felt. It is the same appeal that Dylan feels and, especially in the twenty-first century, displays in songs like “Scarlet Town”, “Make You Feel My Love” and “Soon After Midnight”: songs that only reveal a sinister, dark undercurrent on second listen. Which sometimes remains entirely under the surface, even. “Make You Feel My Love”, in particular, is generally understood to be a tender declaration of love, but on second listen really does seem more like a threatening letter from a persistent stalker. “The Night” is even more oppressive;

Beware of his promise
Believe what I say
Before the night is ending 
Be sure of what you're saying

… words of a seemingly benevolent comrade, who warns a naïve lass about the imposter who has taken her in. Strangely enough, however, the first person narrator then lists a whole series of actions that are actually only sweet and nice;

Cause he paints a pretty picture 
And he tells you that he needs you 
And he covers you with roses 
And he always keeps you dreaming

… and it goes on like this. Actions of an infatuated, well-meaning lover, in any case. What the lady should be wary of is completely unclear. Even more eyebrow-raising is the “warning” four lines later:

If he always keeps you dreaming 
You won't have a lonely hour 
If the day could last forever 
You might like your ivory tower

You might like your ivory tower”? That is the same, anomalous use of the term “ivory tower” as in Dylan’s revised “To Be Alone With You” from 2021:

To be alone with you, even for just an hour
In a castle high, in an ivory tower
Some people don’t get it, they just don’t have a clue
They wouldn’t know what it’s like to be alone with you

… an ivory tower as an image of an idyllic, romantic love nest. Without the usual negative connotations of “lack of concern”, “unaware of wordly affairs”, “isolated”. The connotations, in any case, as we know them from dozens of songs. From Porter Wagoner’s “Ivory Tower”, for instance (Don’t lock yourself in your ivory tower don’t keep our souls far apart), from Wanda Jackson’s “Fallin'” (I thought that love could never touch me / And then my ivory tower toppled) and from the most beautiful of all, Van Morrison’s “Ivory Tower” from 1986:

When you come down from your Ivory Tower
You will see how it really must be
When you come down from your Ivory Tower
You will see how it really must be
To be like me, to see like me
To feel like me

… a lyric with a strong “Positively 4th Street” vibe, as it were. But then again: Dylan rewrites his “To Be Alone With You” into a brooding, murderous thriller – a sinister protagonist who wants to lure his victim to a castle high with an ivory tower does contribute to the gothic, nineteenth-century shadowy kingdom-setting that Dylan is so fond of, in his late work.

To be continued. Next up: To Be Alone With You part 5

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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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