by Jochen Markhorst
- Red River Shore (1997) part 1: She wrote me a letter
- Red River Shore (1997) part 2: The importance of capturing spontaneity
III Pretty angels all flying in a row
Some of us turn off the lights and we live
In the moonlight shooting by
Some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark
To be where the angels fly
Pretty maids all in a row lined up
Outside my cabin door
I’ve never wanted any of ’em wanting me
’Cept the girl from the Red River shore
The song starts indeed a bit undylanesque, a bit pre-war. An opening with such an aphoristic, moralistic reflection is not uncommon with Heine or Brecht, from parables and Christian lyricism, and from antique ballads altogether, but so far Dylan deemed it too old-fashioned. True, the archaic, slightly edifying-sounding introduction “some of us…” has been used twice in his catalogue, but both times at the end of the song, in the classical way, to express an overarching, concluding moral in the final couplet. Both times also quite similar in content, by the way. Both in “Walls Of Red Wing” (Some of us’ll end up in St. Cloud Prison, and some of us’ll wind up to be lawyers and things) and in “George Jackson (Some of us are prisoners, the rest of us are guards) to proclaim the cynical message that all of us are either victims of the system or enforcers of the system.
For “Red River Shore”, Dylan moves the some of us-formula to the opening lines, but (fortunately) without a socio-critical undertone. It does foretell, though, a preachy, ethical morality; if the forthcoming lyrics turn out to be a ballad with a tragic life or love story, then we may expect some wise lesson – or so this aphoristic opening seems to promise. And then one as might be distilled from Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism, from “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
Semantically it is only a small step to Dylan’s “Some of us turn off the lights and we live in the moonlight shooting by”, and in terms of content it does seem to want to express approximately the same thing: we all are in the darkness, in the gutter, miserable, but comfort is to be found in beauty, something like that.
Wilde’s aphorism, by the way, has completely detached itself from its original meaning. The quote comes from his first big hit, from his first comedy of society, from Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), is spoken by Lord Darlington and in the context of the dialogue means something like “all men are immoral bastards, but some can hide that very well behind charm”. But freed from its context, the quote gains tremendously in poetic brilliance and depth, to be overshadowed perhaps only by that other perfect quote from Lady Windermere, “I can resist everything except temptation.”
A first problem, and perhaps a first explanation of Dylan’s apparent dissatisfaction with the song, is offered by these opening lines. Some of us turn off the lights and we live in the moonlight shooting by, as he seems to be singing, or Some of us turn off the lights and we lay up in the moonlight shooting by, as it says in the official Lyrics and on the website, is both semantically and poetically a bit weird – not to say just weak. “Moonlight shooting by”? All of us have the childhood memory of the night journey back home in the car, pleasantly warm and safe in the backseat, while the light of the street lamps shoots by. But the poet probably does not want to evoke this association. Nor, we may assume, anything like the Star Wars Stormtroopers shooting with light and missing all the time.
Comparably problematic is the next, equally aphoristic, metaphor: “Some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark / To be where the angels fly.” This time not only semantically and poetically, but now syntactically a confusing mess as well. “We frighten ourselves, and very much so, in order to dwell in a place where celestial beings flutter around”? – it is hard to understand this particular sequence of words in any other way. Well alright, through laborious detours and with acceptance of cheap symbolism, something like “we live a cramped life in ignorance, for fear of not being admitted to Heaven’s Kingdom,” or something like that could be extracted – but that would be a very pathetic moral to accompany the coming, sad lost-love lament about the Red River Girl.
No, it actually seems as if Dylan is seeking his 1965 form, his sound-over-meaning mode, as if Dylan tries to do “consciously what I used to do unconsciously,” as he says in 1978 Matt Damsker interview. And as he, in a variation, a few years after “Red River Shore” will repeat in the CBS “60 Minutes” special interview with Ed Bradley (2004):
BD: I don’t know how I got to write those songs.
EB: What do you mean you don’t know how?
BD: All those early songs were almost magically written. Ah… “Darkness at the break of noon, shadows even the silver spoon, a handmade blade, the child’s balloon…” Well, try to sit down and write something like that.
So, stylistically at most, this somewhat strange opening to “Red River Shore” is still Dylanesque in a way. We see a familiar stylistic feature, the surprising metaphor, the stylistic device that Dylan seems to use more consciously as the years go by. The poetic brilliance of a metaphor like to be where the angels fly may be debatable – and rigid Christian interpreters probably deny that it is meant metaphorically at all. And maybe a playful Dylan is only incorporating a playful nod to the Meat Puppets song played so smashingly by Nirvana in 1994 during the MTV Unplugged session, “Lakes Of Fire”;
Where do bad folks go when they die? They don't go to heaven where the angels fly They go to the lake of fire and fry Won't see them again 'till the fourth of July I knew a lady who came from Duluth Bit by a dog with a rabid tooth She went to her grave just a little too soon And flew away howling on the yellow moon
… but the flying angels metaphor is surprising anyway. With the same surprising power as the whole world got me pinned up against the fence in “‘Til I Fell In Love With You”, for example, or my soul has turned into steel in “Not Dark Yet”. Or, for that matter, shadowing a silver spoon. But without the relevance that the metaphors in these other Time Out Of Mind songs have. At least, a bridge to the following Pretty maids all in a row lined up outside my cabin door is completely opaque.
In June 2020, when Douglas Brinkley interviews Dylan for the New York Times and asks about the Eagles reference in “Murder Most Foul”, the pretty maids-verse retroactively takes on a different connotation;
Your mention of Don Henley and Glenn Frey on “Murder Most Foul” came off as a bit of a surprise to me. What Eagles songs do you enjoy the most?
“New Kid in Town,” “Life in the Fast Lane,” “Pretty Maids All in a Row.” That could be one of the best songs ever.
Until that remarkable outpouring in 2020, the verse seemed an unspectacular derivation – from the eighteenth-century nursery rhyme “Mary” perhaps;
Mary, Mary, quite contrary, How does your garden grow? With silver bells and cockle shells, And pretty maids all in a row.
… but a connection with Joe Walsh’s atypical contribution to Hotel California seemed a bit absurd. And still isn’t too obvious, really. Melancholy is a common denominator, but the line to “Red River Shore” is not much thicker than that. Which doesn’t matter to Walsh, of course. Two months after that New York Times interview, fellow composer Joe Vitale tells Rolling Stone what an impression Dylan’s words make:
“Coming from Bob Dylan, it doesn’t get any better than that. I called Joe immediately. And he goes, ‘I know what you’re calling about.’ I said, ‘This is so cool, Joe.’ He was excited, too. He thought that was really cool. I printed out that article and framed it.”
It was like, Joe means to say, to be where the angels fly.
To be continued. Next up Red River Shore part 4: I got a gal named Sue
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:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
- Street-Legal: Bob Dylan’s unpolished gem from 1978
- Bringing It All Back Home: Bob Dylan’s 2nd Big Bang