By 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
- Red River Shore part 3: Pretty angels all flying in a row
- Red River Shore (1997) part 4: I got a gal named Sue
- Red River Shore (1997) part 5: Mom says the pills must be working
- Red River Shore (1997): part 6; Misery is but the shadow of happiness
VII Please try to make it rhyme
Well we’re living in the shadows of a fading past Trapped in the fires of time I’ve tried not to ever hurt anybody And to stay out of the life of crime And when it’s all been said and done I never did know the score One more day is another day away From the girl from the red river shore
Cosmologists will agree. Before the Big Bang there was an endless, timeless Nothing, then a brief flash of light, gravity, sulphur storms, atoms, C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate and event horizons, and after this brief flash, the flash in which we exist, the All shrinks back to a singularity and there will be an endless, eternal Nothing again. Nothingness without any Something, so also without matter, time or light. Nabokov puts it a little more simplified: “Life is just one small piece of light between two eternal darknesses,” and Dylan a little more poetically: “We’re trapped in the fires of time.”
This fifth stanza of Dylan’s “Red River Shore” illustrates (finally) that the song is a Time Out Of Mind song. After the New Morning rhetoric of the first verse, the Freewheelin’ imagery of the second, the Nashville Skyline clichés of the third, and the Street-Legal poetry of the fourth, we’re back to the world-weariness of “Standing In The Doorway”, the melancholy of “Not Dark Yet”, the despondency of “Cold Irons Bound”. Just take the opening line.
“Living in the shadows of a fading past” is a great, classic line with which Dylan announces in eight words the overarching theme of his twenty-first-century oeuvre. It echoes À la recherche du temps perdu and Neil Young’s Dylanesque gem “Time Fades Away”, the old protest song “Which Side Are You On?” (are we living in the shadow of slavery) and Original Sin, it has the couleur of every film noir between The Maltese Falcon and Touch Of Evil, and it would have been an even nicer album title than Time Out Of Mind.
Classical, almost archaic beauty – though therefore not too original. All the stronger hits the subsequent image, trapped in the fires of time.
“Fires of Time” is a rather unusual image. Which is remarkable, really – after all, it’s a not too far-fetched, extremely strong and very visual metaphor to express the destructive power of Time. It has the potential to trigger a plethora of related metaphors with burning, heat, flames and smoke, with the added bonus of the religious, autumnal connotation of ashes to ashes. But Dylan resists that temptation – this one, remarkable trapped in the fires of time remains unexplored, and colleagues don’t pick it up either after this. Yes, a single exception like The Bellamy Brothers song makes an attempt. Little successful, unfortunately – their “The Fires Of Time” (on The Anthology, Vol. 1, 2009) is a somewhat overcooked throwaway with a tiresome enumeration of historical milestones à la Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire”, but full of stylistic embarrassments (“The Roman Empire fell, they found some dinosaur bones”). And with a modest salute:
From Buddy Holly to Hendrix From Haggard to Jones From Elvis to Dylan From The Beatles to The Stones Well, the guitars twang And the poetry rhyme And they rocked our world Right through the Fires of Time
… with some awkwardly mixed away, presumably Hendrixesque-meant guitar fury after “Hendrix”, and ditto, presumably Dylanesque-meant harmonica honking after “Dylan”.
The Bellamys are forgiven – they have given the world “Let Your Love Flow” and “If I Said You Had A Beautiful Body Would You Hold It Against Me”, so they can do whatever they like. And in their defence: Dylan doesn’t do any better with fires of time either.
The remainder of this fifth stanza, after that intriguing and potentially fruitful opening, is disappointingly flat – and stylistically rather weak, if we are honest. I’ve tried not to ever hurt anybody and to stay out of the life of crime is a bumpy verse line with clichés nonchalantly pasted together, and the following And when it’s all been said and done I never did know the score is of the same ilk (though less bumpy). It even comes awfully close to filler lyrics; as if the song poet has already designed the beautiful closing line One more day is another day away from the girl from the red river shore, and for now just bridges the road thereto with rather haphazard grab finds from his inner jukebox.
I’ve tried not to ever hurt anybody has a somewhat alienating “John Wesley Harding” echo, for example (he was never known to hurt an honest man), although it is quite likely that Dylan has long since forgotten that song. Oh well, he knows the word combination from dozens of other songs too, of course. Charley Pride could, after borrowing I could never be free in the third verse, be a candidate supplier again (from “You’re So Good When You’re Bad”, his no.2 hit from 1982). But another Nashville Cat probably appeals more to Dylan;
So let me say this, I never tried to hurt anybody Though I guess there's a few, that I still couldn't look in the eye If I've got one wish, I hope it rains at my funeral For once, I'd like to be the only one dry
… the bittersweet, funny “I Hope It Rains At My Funeral” from 1971. By Tom T. Hall, who is so wittily dismissed by Dylan in his 2015 MusiCares Speech. He recalls reading an interview in which Tom was “bitching about” a James Taylor song. Coincidentally, Dylan tells, he was just listening to a song by Tom T. Hall on the radio; “I Love” – indeed a quite corny, über-sentimental drag of a song;
“Now listen, I’m not ever going to disparage another songwriter. I’m not going to do that. I’m not saying it’s a bad song. I’m just saying it might be a little overcooked. But, you know, it was in the top 10 anyway.”
Still, he does quote effortlessly half the lyrics – and Tom T. Hall’s name is of course also under “I Washed My Face In The Morning Dew” and especially the successful “Ode to Billie Joe” rip-off “Harper Valley P.T.A.”, so The Storyteller probably does have some credit with Dylan.
Somewhere in that same corner of that inner jukebox, Dylan also finds the other clichés, or so it seems. When it’s all been said and done we know from a hundred songs, and if Dylan’s muse indeed does hang around in the country corner at the moment, then it may have been lifted from Charlie Rich’s “Who Will The Next Fool Be” – or picked up via Jimmie Davis’ evergreen “It Makes No Difference Now” (recorded by everything and everyone from Gene Autry to Willie Nelson and from Fats Domino to Merle Haggard, but the ultimate version is Ray Charles’). Although Dylan himself will attribute this particular line to Buddy Holly’s “I’m Gonna Love You Too”;
“Buddy Holly. You know, I don’t really recall exactly what I said about Buddy Holly, but while we were recording [Time Out Of Mind], every place I turned there was Buddy Holly. You know what I mean? It was one of those things. Every place you turned. You walked down a hallway and you heard Buddy Holly records, like “That’ll Be the Day.” Then you’d get in the car to go over to the studio and “Rave On” would be playing. Then you’d walk into this studio and someone’s playing a cassette of “It’s so Easy”. And this would happen day after day after day. Phrases of Buddy Holly songs would just come out of nowhere. It was spooky. But after we recorded and left, you know, it stayed in our minds. Well, Buddy Holly’s spirit must have been someplace, hastening this record.”
(Murray Engleheart interview for Guitar World, 1998)
“Phrases of Buddy Holly songs would just come out of nowhere.” And then Elvis probably does supply I never knew the score (from Lonnie Donegan’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”). Or a dozen other songs, of course; the phrase is as generic as the life of crime in the verse line before. It is tempting, though, to think that Dylan subconsciously is revealing a secret love for the immortal Mose Allison there, and for his superior “Your Mind Is On Vacation”;
You're quoting figures, you're dropping names You're telling stories about the dames You're always laughin' when things ain't funny You try to sound like you're big money If talk was criminal, you'd lead a life of crime Because your mind is on vacation and your mouth is Working overtime
Mose Allison – Your Mind Is On Vacation
… not a very likely scenario, no. But if so, Dylan must have taken the last line to heart: “If you must keep talking please try to make it rhyme”.
To be continued. Next up: Red River Shore part 8: He is no one
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