- 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
- Red River Shore (1997) part 7: Please try to make it rhyme
- Red River Shore (1997) part 8: He is no one
- Red River Shore (1997) part 9: A floating nothing
by Jochen Markhorst
X Send it to Lulu
Well I went back to see about her once Went back to straighten it out Everybody that I talked to had seen us there Said they didn’t know who I was talking about Well the sun went down on me a long time ago I’ve had to pull back from the door I wish I could have spent every hour of my life With the girl from the red river shore
Chancellor Merkel also plays along. In 2012, at a prize-giving ceremony, she happens to mention a recent visit to the town of Bielefeld, a small city in North Rhine-Westphalia. She drops a dramatically perfect pause and then adds: “… so es denn existiert – if it exists at all.” The audience laughs all the louder, as Frau Merkel very rarely allows herself to indulge in frivolities. When the laughter subsides, the Chancellor places, again perfectly timed: “Ich hatte den Eindruck, ich war da – I was under the impression that I was there.”
Merkel is referring to a running gag that by then has been popular in Germany for nearly 30 years: the collective conspiracy to maintain that Bielefeld does not exist at all. Its existence is said to have been fabricated by, as befits a good conspiracy theory, an unnamed “THEY” (“SIE” – always written in capitals).
The city council deals with it somewhat ambiguously. For the first few years, until 1999, the increasingly popular joke is ignored, but then the council decides on a counter-offensive and launches the Bielefeld gibt es doch! campaign (“Bielefeld does exist!”) with an official press release. Unfortunately, an inattentive official sends the official statement to the press on 1 April, so obviously, it backfires. In 2019, the next counter-offensive follows: the city council awards 1 million euros to the person who can prove conclusively that Bielefeld does not exist.
Usually, it is less funny, such a collective conspiracy. Which seems to be Dylan’s approach now; the less funny track. Apparently, the previous verse, the I know I’ve stayed here before verse, inspires him to the plot of an old-fashioned mystery thriller – the plot of a movie like The Lady Vanishes, to be more precise. Not too far-fetched; Hitchcock is on a pedestal with Dylan. In interviews, he does mention the director quite frequently, always admiringly, Hitchcock passes by once in Tarantula (“the world didn’t stop for a second – it just blew up / alfred hitchcock made the whole thing into a mystery”) and anyway: Dylan does have a fondness for old black and white crime thrillers in general.
In this old Hitchcock film (The Lady Vanishes is from 1938 and is considered one of Hitchcock’s “early sound films”), the plot revolves around a young woman who seems to be the only one to notice the disappearance of a fellow passenger on the train, the elderly lady Miss Froy. The other passengers and the train staff all claim they never saw her. Everybody that I talked to had seen us there said they didn’t know who I was talking about. A doctor present diagnoses hallucinations in poor, desperate Iris, and is not bothered by professional secrecy; he blabbers about it all over the train. An artifice that effectively contributes to the feeling of increasing suffocation for both the protagonist and the audience – in a more modern film (2005) with a similar plot, Flightplan with Jodie Foster, poor Jodie is even tied to her plane seat by supposedly well-meaning airline staff, and a therapist present there diagnoses something like hallucinations due to an unresolved trauma. Which, of course, exponentially increases the helpless frustration of the audience and Jodie. Especially since the missing lady in this film is Jodie’s six-year-old daughter – an extra traumatising dimension already added in Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965) and later, in a variant, in Clint Eastwood’s Changeling with Angelina Jolie.
There is a difference though, a psychological deepening in fact, with Dylan’s protagonist – in all these films, the unhappy protagonist has at least one powerful ally: the audience. We have all witnessed that Miss Froy really exists, that Jodie Foster is not crazy and that little Bunny Lake is not a figment of a mentally ill lady’s imagination either. In “Red River Shore”, however, the screenwriter has already sown doubts about the protagonist; the audience has already heard him say that his time with that girl was “a dream”, has heard him sigh that she was “true to me”, and we even have some reason to suspect that the protagonist is a traumatised murderer – with all those whole and half references to a fatal event in the shadows of the past.
The build-up is good. “I went back to see about her once, went back to straighten it out” is an announcement that already makes the audience cringe: “Don’t do it, man.” The subsequent observation that everyone denies knowing her, all those people that had seen us there together back then, is then even a bit of a relief; thankfully, the whole village conspires to keep this dubious figure away from her. We, the audience, even become accomplices in a way; unlike in all those paranoia films, we are not on the side of the victim of the conspiracy, but we have sympathy for the conspirators.
It seems to break the I-person. “The sun went down on me a long time ago / I’ve had to pull back from the door” – Dylan’s paraphrase of the poetic resignation from a recent pop song beyond categorization, from Elton John’s 1974 “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”. The brilliant song, which superficially expresses a long jeremiad of a spurned lover, but with, as lyricist Bernie Taupin says, “a dark twist”;
But you misread my meaning when I met you Closed the door and left me blinded by the light Don't let the sun go down on me Although I search myself, it's always someone else I see I'd just allow a fragment of your life to wander free But losing everything is like the sun going down on me
An hors catégorie song that achieves a Holy Trinity: majestic lyrics with a dark twist, delightful melodies and a brilliant, just not over-the-top from babbling-mountain-brook-to-wilderness waterfall arrangement. Thanks to the chilling elegance of Davey Johnstone’s guitar, Del Newman’s superior horn arrangement and the heavenly backing vocals of the Beach Boys Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston (and Toni Tennille of Captain & Tenille).
Elton, too, had an opinion, by the way:
“I’m not always the best judge of my own work – I am, after all, the man who loudly announced that ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ was such a terrible song that I would never countenance releasing it […]. I hated the song so much we were going to stop recording it immediately and send it to Engelbert Humperdinck – ‘and if he doesn’t want it, tell him to send it to Lulu! She can put it on a B-side!’ – I was coaxed back to the vocal booth and completed the take. Then I yelled at Gus Dudgeon that I hated it even more now it was finished and was going to kill him with my bare hands if he put it on the album.”
(Me – Elton John, 2019)
Which, in retrospect, makes us regret that Gus Dudgeon was not the producer in Miami in January 1997. To coax Dylan back and complete the song.
To be continued. Next up: Red River Shore part 11: It’s complicated
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