Red River Shore (1997) part 12: I see dead people

by Jochen Markhorst

XII        I see dead people

Now I heard of a guy who lived a long time ago
A man full of sorrow and strife
That if someone around him died and was dead
He knew how to bring ’em on back to life
Well I don’t know what kind of language he used
Or if they do that kind of thing anymore
Sometimes I think nobody ever saw me here at all
Except the girl from the red river shore

In The Graham Norton Show, former Friends actor Matthew Perry tells the amusing story of how, in a bar, he met M. Night Shyamalan, whom he knows a little because six months earlier he had presented an award to Bruce Willis for his impressive role in The Sixth Sense. And in the process, he got to say hello to the rest of the cast and the director. Perry spends an exceptionally enjoyable, alcohol-soaked evening with the world-famous director, they go to another joint together and Matthew is already dreaming of a major role in one of Shyamalan’s next films. When the director goes to the toilet, Perry is approached by an acquaintance who happens to be passing by.

“He said, how’s your night going, and I said: what, are you kidding? I’m having the greatest night of my life. M. Night Shyamalan and I have been hanging out for the last two and a half hours. It’s been great. And M. Night Shyamalan came back from the bathroom and my friend said: that’s not M. Night Shyamalan.

And it wasn’t. It was just an Indian gentleman who looked a lot like M. Night Shyamalan.”

Perry’s eagerness is understandable. He is offered plenty of roles, but all in the romantic comedy department, and M. Night Shyamalan is Hollywood’s golden boy at the time, after the smashing, worldwide success of the occult thriller The Sixth Sense. (1999). That success is 90% due to the script, also written by director Shyamalan. And especially because of its mindfuck quality, the bewildering twist at the end that the main character, psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), is dead – we have unsuspectingly been sympathising and identifying with a ghost all this time, a ghost that, apart from the cinema audience, is only seen by the other main character, nine-year-old Cole “I see dead people” Sear.

Cole also learns why these ghosts are wandering around: they have unfinished business, only see what they want to see and don’t even know they’re dead. And that all sounds awfully close to Dylan’s protagonist, after hearing the last two lines;

Sometimes I think nobody ever saw me here at all
Except the girl from the red river shore

… lines spoken by the protagonist after he announces that he is looking for a guy who can bring the dead back to life.

There are enough lines to be drawn from Shyamalan to Dylan. He uses Dylan’s music in his films, calls Dylan one of his great heroes in interviews and even confesses to feeling a kind of telepathic connection with the Bard (in Michael Bamberger’s weirdly hagiographic, authorised study The Man Who Heard Voices, 2006).

But the suggestion that these two Dylan lines inspired his one great masterpiece is way too far-fetched. It is highly unlikely that the script-writing director could have heard the unreleased song from January 1997 at the time he was writing the screenplay for The Sixth Sense. And then again, the concept of the-one-who-can-see-ghosts is not that unique.

Meg Ryan sees the angel Nicolas Cage in City Of Angels, the Hollywoodised version of the brilliant Wim Wenders film Der Himmel über Berlin (1987). Whoopi Goldberg is the only one who can hear the murdered Patrick Swayze in Ghost (1990). Nicolas Roeg’s classic Don’t Look Now, in a way. And the witty Ricky Gervais as a blunt dentist in Ghost Town (2008) is also the only one who can see dead people – the idea was of course created for horror, but is surprisingly often used in romantic comedies and child-friendly family films as well.

But what sets Dylan’s “Red River Shore” apart from all those stories, and what it shares with The Sixth Sense, is its surprising twist. I think nobody ever saw me here at all offers, in its final lines, a new scenario that overturns all that has gone before; the scenario in which the narrator dwells in the shadows of a fading past, wanders in the dimension where the angels fly, living in the moonlight, seeks his soul’s rest there where the black winds roar, for whom the sun doesn’t shine anymore

The closing lines offer the advanced insight that we have listened to a jeremiad of a wandering soul, of a spirit that has unfinished business and that probably does not even realise that he is dead. At least, he seems to be surprised that no one can see him.  Except the girl from the Red River shore. And it turns the motivation to find the guy who can bring the dead back to life; this is not a repentant murderer trying to undo his misdeed with the reanimation of the Red River girl, but he himself, like the angel Nicolas Cage and the jazz pianist Joe Gardner, wants to be brought back to life.

Nice twist – though far from conclusive. Dylan’s apparent dissatisfaction with “Red River Shore” (the song is discarded for Time Out Of Mind and never put on the setlist either – it belongs to the rather select club of Dylan songs completely ignored by the master himself) may have something to do with its imbalance.

Comparably great works like “Blind Willie McTell” and “Series Of Dreams” are, after initial rejection, eventually rehabilitated. “Series Of Dreams” is admitted to the stage in Vienna, Virginia (8 September 1993) four years after its demotion to outtake, and performed nine more times thereafter. “Blind Willie McTell” takes longer to be rehabilitated, but then returns all the more glorious; to the dismay of producer Mark Knopfler, among others, it is rejected for Infidels in 1983, only to be released on The Bootleg Series in 1991, and after The Band records it and enjoys success with it, Dylan surrenders: since 1997, fourteen years after its conception, Dylan has performed the song 227 times.

 

A reluctant capitulation, still. Dylan seems only half convinced, judging by his statements in the interview with Jonathan Lethem for Rolling Stone, 2006 (when he has performed the song already about a hundred times):

“It was never developed fully, I never got around to completing it. There wouldn’t have been any other reason for leaving it off the record.”

“It was never developed fully” also seems to be the key to explain the fate of “Red River Shore”. Presumably, the poet only gradually, around the seventh verse, recognised the beautiful ambiguity of traumatised killer or wandering soul, made a mental note, but never got around to completing it. And now the song is dead.

It needn’t be too late. Perhaps Dylan should consider a night on the town with the writer/director of The Sixth Sense. Storyteller M. Night Shyamalan is, after all, a guy who knows how to bring ’em on back to life.

 

To be continued. Next up: Red River Shore part 13: ’Twas in the merry month of June – finale.

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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1 Response to Red River Shore (1997) part 12: I see dead people

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    The artist may have the final decision on whether to release a song or not, but to assert that s/he’s the best one to judge it’s artistic quality is debatable –

    Red River has what Poe calls a ‘unity of effect’ as far as many listeners are concerned ..,even if some listeners (and analysts thereof) do not agree.

    Poe’s “Raven” was panned by a number of literary critics but it has withstood the test of time.

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