Dirt Road Blues (1997) part 8: You Ain’t Going Nowhere

Previously in this series…

by Jochen Markhorst

VIII       You Ain’t Going Nowhere

In 2004, Simon & Schuster publishes Dylan’s third official song lyrics collection, Lyrics: 1962-2001. The previous edition ran until 1985, so this is the first with the lyrics of Time Out Of Mind, and thus also the first with the lyrics of “Dirt Road Blues”.

Textual discrepancies in Lyrics are not uncommon. Words, half-sentences and, in extremis, even whole stanzas are different from what Dylan actually sings – which has been the case since the very first official release, since Writings & Drawings from 1973. In general hardly understandable, these changes, and puzzling in any case. We don’t know if Dylan personally makes the changes, for example. Sometimes text differences seem to be due to careless transcriptions by a dyslexic secretary with hearing problems (Ol’ black Bascom, don’t break no mirrors as the opening line of “Tell Me, Momma” is famous), sometimes one suspects a teasing Dylan wants to play a prank (I’ll build a geodesic dome in the transcription of “Santa Fe”), and sometimes it looks as if an embarrassed lyricist tries to cover up his own lousy poetry (“You Angel You”).

None of the three options seem to apply to the rewritten last verse of “Dirt Road Blues”. On Time Out Of Mind, Dylan sings, perfectly intelligible:

Gonna walk down that dirt road 'til everything becomes the same
Gonna walk down that dirt road 'til everything becomes the same
I keep on walking 'til I hear her holler out my name

Completely different from the lyrics published in Lyrics 1962-2001, in Lyrics 1961-2012 and on the site:

Gon’ walk on down that dirt road ’til I’m right beside the sun
Gon’ walk on down until I’m right beside the sun
I’m gonna have to put up a barrier to keep myself away from everyone

Dylan will never perform the song, so we can’t trace which one is meant to be the “actual” text. Normally, it would be plausible that the published text is the “definitive” one. Lyrics 1962-2001 was released in 2004, seven years after Time Out Of Mind. It seems obvious that Dylan, in the meantime, went through the proofs with his red pencil, and made some changes here and there.

Against that scenario speaks the tip of the iceberg that producer Daniel Lanois offers, in a telephone interview with The Irish Times, 24 October 1997 (so three weeks after the release of Time Out Of Mind):

“In fact, when we first got together, he didn’t play me any songs; he read me the songs. He read 12 lyrics back-to-back for an hour and it was like listening to someone reading a book. Then, later, in the studio, he modified the lyrics.”

… which suggests that Dylan gave these very same written-out lyrics to Simon & Schuster, but forgot, or didn’t bother, to incorporate the modifications that Lanois says he made later in the studio into the written-out lyrics. In that – somewhat more likely – case the published text in Lyrics and on the site is the older text, the original text.

Debatable though it remains. Both in terms of content and stylistically, the “wrong”, the published final couplet fits better with the rest of the song and with the overall colour of Time Out Of Mind at all;

Gon’ walk on down until I’m right beside the sun
I’m gonna have to put up a barrier to keep myself away from everyone

… escapism pur sang. The whole of Time Out Of Mind is permeated with Dark Romanticism as it is; desire, Wanderlust, night, Evil, approaching death, decay, despair and melancholy – all the nineteenth century themes of Dark Romanticism can be found in every song. And the closing couplet is a textbook example of the romantic longing for an unattainable ideal: right beside the sun is, after all, just as unattainable as, say, “the horizon” or “the next mountain”. A classic theme, but still an original way of putting it – “right beside the sun” does sound rather archaic, but is in fact an unknown image. Vaguely, we hear an echo of Kris Kristofferson’s immortal classic “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (I stopped beside the Sunday school), but actually, it is an exclusively scientific word combination; to indicate the position of planets, for example, or to describe phenomena such as sun dogs.

We never hear the image in the art of song. Yes, across the border, though still hardly ever. With Francis Cabrel, the man who, with even more rights than Hugues Aufray, can be considered the French Bob Dylan. On his breakthrough album Les Chemins de traverse from 1979, the album with the hit “Je l’aime à mourir” and with the horrible cover, we find halfway through Side 2 the heartbreaking “C’était l’hiver”, a Chronicle of a Suicide Foretold, with the final couplet:

Elle a sûrement rejoint le ciel
Elle brille à côté du soleil
Comme les nouvelles églises
Mais si depuis ce soir-là je pleure
C'est qu'il fait froid dans le fond de mon cœur
(She has surely joined the sky
She shines beside the sun
Like the new churches
But ever since that night I’ve been crying
For it's cold in the depths of my heart)

… so with a connotation completely different from Dylan’s “beside the sun”.

Just as Dark Romantic is the closing line. With, after that lookin’ at my shadow from the previous verse, a second hint at the dark-romantic doppelganger motif; the narrator doesn’t just want to keep away from everyone, no, he has to put up a barrier to keep myself away from everyone. As if there were a second I, which the first I must keep under control. Fitting with the earlier insinuations (run away and hide, praying for salvation, chains) that a second I has just committed an atrocity. An atrocity that leads the first I to close the barrier, flee to unreachable distances and hide beside the sun.

Again, a chilling image, and again quite original. But not entirely original; four years earlier, on their successful debut album August And Everything After, the Dylan disciples Counting Crows already sang in “Perfect Blue Buildings”:

Gonna get me a little oblivion
Try to keep myself away from me

… but without the sinister connotations that linger under the skin of Dylan’s song; singer Adam Duritz seems to be singing about the practical benefits of a drug or alcohol high. From the record with their breakthrough hit “Mr. Jones”, the supposed ode to “Ballad Of A Thin Man” – and the predecessor of their catchy Dylan cover that concisely brings to the point the actual destiny of the fleeing “Dirt Road Blues” protagonist:


To be continued. Next up: Dirt Road Blues part 9


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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