by Jochen Markhorst
II They kind of write themselves
You took a part of me that I really miss I keep asking myself how long it can go on like this You told yourself a lie, that’s all right mama I told myself one too I’m tryin’ to get closer but I’m still a million miles from you
True, in the New York Times interview with Douglas Brinkley from June 2020, there are some questionable passages. “Pretty Maids All-in A Row, that could be one of the best songs ever,” Dylan declares on the hardly remarkable Eagles song. “Ruby, My Dear” by Thelonious Monk “inspired me as a songwriter” (Monk’s ballad is one of his most beautiful, but: the song is an instrumental, the chords are off-centre, and progress quite unusual – if Dylan was inspired by it at all, it at most inspired him how to not write a song).
But those strange passages pale into insignificance compared to the enlightening statements Dylan makes elsewhere. Especially about his working method, which he reveals in response to Brinkley’s question about the song “I Contain Multitudes”: “In that particular song, the last few verses came first. So that’s where the song was going all along. Obviously, the catalyst for the song is the title line.” And: “Most of my recent songs are like that.”
Dylan has been a fan of it for more than half a century, of the antique ballad form inspired by François Villon (1431-1463), recognisable by the repetition of a single line at the end of each stanza. On Blood On The Tracks (1975), for instance, in five of the ten songs. On Rough And Rowdy Ways (2020) in three songs, six songs of The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964)… this specific form, in which “the catalyst for the song is the title line”, is a constant in Dylan’s oeuvre.
And here on Time Out Of Mind, it sets records; in eight of the eleven songs, the stanzas work towards the title line. Like in this “Million Miles”, to the title line that, according to Scott Warmuth, is probably due to the inspiring Henry Rollins: “I’m tryin’ to get closer but I’m still a million miles from you.” The other verse lines in the eight stanzas should then be regarded, in this genesis scenario, as eight times the carriers of where the song was going all along.
The song poet does not make it too difficult for himself. Only three lines leading up to this title line, in the simplest rhyme scheme (aabb). Something like Blind Willie McTell’s “You Was Born To Die”, for example;
Don't want no woman that run around Stay out in the street and like a badfoot clown You made me love you and you made me cry You should remember that you were born to die
… also four-line verses working towards a title line in the rhyme scheme aabb. And as in dozens of other songs, of course – but Blind Willie McTell’s spirit seems to hover above the song anyway, and above the album altogether.
Not (yet) in the opening lines, though. The gentle, autumnal You took a part of me that I really miss is far too poetic for the he-man McTell, with his boastful, manly kind of manner, as Willie Dixon would say about Muddy Waters. Blind Willie McTell is a man who sings Now looka here mama let me tell you this: if you wants to get crooked I’m gonna give you my fist, and who sings Mama, you’ll never find another hot shot like me – Blind Willie’s machoism forbids vulnerabilities like You took a part of me that I really miss. That is something for heart-broken country heroes like Hank Williams or Hank Snow. Or, even more, for Ferlin Husky:
When you walked out a part of me went with you My teardrops fell as you walked out the door Everything's gone wrong darling since you've gone And I'm not me without you anymore
… “I’m Not Me Without You Anymore” from 1965. It’s a drag of a song, actually, but the opening line is beautiful. And Dylan does have a thing for Ferlin too, as we know. In his autobiography, Robbie Robertson reveals that Dylan thought already back in 1967 of Ferlin Husky, wondering whether a Basement song would be suitable for the hit machine Husky:
“The logic behind these recordings was to put together a collection of new Bob Dylan tunes that other artists might cover. After we would lay down a cut like “Too Much of Nothing”, Bob might comment, “Okay, that one would be good to send to Ferlin Husky.” He was only half kidding.”
…as a DJ, Dylan plays him twice in Theme Time Hour, including Husky’s biggest hit “On the Wings Of A Snow White Dove”, the song Dylan will also quote in 2020, in “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” (If I had the wings of a snow-white dove / I’d preach the gospel, the gospel of love).
So there are some Dylan-Husky lines, but actually too thin to promote When you walked out a part of me went with you to a trigger; at best it demonstrates an unlikely, artistic kinship with the song’s author, Red “I’m A Truck” Simpson.
For the time being, Dylan the poet leaves it at that, and leans back after his beautiful opening line. The road to the title line, the next two lines, is filled with unspectacular cliché talk. I keep asking myself how long it can go on like this is a run-of-the-mill lament that we know, in variations, from dozens of country tear-in-my-beer songs, and undoubtedly also sung somewhere by Dylan’s great hero George Jones. A bit more ambitious and original is the following You told yourself a lie, that’s all right mama I told myself one too, although it does smell a bit like self-plagiarism; tone and content are very close to I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too from “Mississippi”, which Dylan records during these same sessions.
The interlude that’s alright mama seems too casual to be really meant as an Elvis-wink, but it does add to the eclectic nature of the song – like the previous line, it seems like a self-controlling intruder. “The songs seem to know themselves and they know that I can sing them, vocally and rhythmically,” Dylan says in that same New York Times interview, “they kind of write themselves and count on me to sing them.”
To be continued. Next up Million Miles part 3: And thou didst commit whoredom with them
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