Million Miles part 6: Like a wagon wheel

by Jochen Markhorst

VI         Like a wagon wheel

The last thing you said before you hit the street 
“Gonna find me a janitor to sweep me off my feet” 
I said, “That’s all right, you do what you gotta do” 
Well, I’m tryin’ to get closer, I’m still a million miles from you

 The song poet Dylan has a nice final couplet up his sleeve. But makes the debatable decision of going there by taking a detour; the two verses before that final couplet surely are the weakest links of the song. The penultimate verse even comes frighteningly close to being filler or even lousy poetry, and this sixth verse is unfortunately quite forgettable too. Mainly due, of course, to the corny pun with the janitor.

In itself, there is nothing wrong with a corny pun, every once in a while. Dylan indulges in it with some frequency, in fact in every decade of his sixty-year career. In the early sixties in songs whose form alone allows a cabaretesque approach, in talkin’ blues songs like “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” and “Talkin’ World War III Blues”. Later in frenzied mercurial songs like “Tombstone Blues” (The sun’s not yellow – it’s chicken), it continues through to twenty-first century songs like “Po’ Boy” (Freddy or not here I come), and culminates on Rough And Rowdy Ways (2020).

Here, however, there is something amiss. In a blues in which the protagonist is tossed to and fro between bitterness and despair, the cheap pun with “janitor” and “sweep me off my feet” is, well, inappropriate. All the more so, because the line catches the ear coming after the drama-promising opening line The last thing you said before you hit the street and before the melodious but clichéd That’s all right, you do what you gotta do. A verse line with a word combination, by the way, that is always attractive anyhow, as we can hear in Manfred Mann’s “You Gave Me Somebody To Love”, and in Santana’s “Choose”, but especially as demonstrated by the Grandmaster Jimmy Webb, who in 1968 wrote a whole song around it. “Do What You Gotta Do” sounds great in any version (B.J. Thomas, Nina Simone, The Four Tops, Clarence Carter, and more), but rarely as beautiful as when Roberta Flack halves the tempo and pours a can of violins over it (1970, on the same record that features Roberta’s heartbreaking “Just Like A Woman”, Chapter Two);

… a beautiful song Jimmy Webb dashes off in 1968, sometime between “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”, “MacArthur Park” and “Wichita Lineman” (to name but three landmarks).

Dylan himself seems to feel some dissatisfaction as well. After the recording, in January ’97, he first ignores the song completely. Other Time Out Of Mind songs like “Love Sick”, “Can’t Wait” and “Cold Irons Bound” are immediately taken to the stage and performed over thirty times in their year of birth, “Million Miles” has to wait until the next year, until January 1998. This verse is then sung, but the following one is skipped – and a year later, in 1999, this janitorial couplet is also discarded completely. After that, “Million Miles” is only performed occasionally. Three or four times a year, culminating in 2008, when the song is on the set list a mere eight times – leaving out even the last three verses.

The reservations about the penultimate verse are even more pronounced. In the studio, Dylan sings:

Rock me, pretty baby, rock me all at once
Rock me for a little while, rock me for a couple of months 
And I’ll rock you too 
I’m tryin’ to get closer but I’m still a million miles from you

… hardly earth-shattering, indeed. A friendly critic might qualify it as a reverence to one of the great blues foundations, to B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby”, but Dylan’s own fumbling with this verse suggests that he himself also sees it as a less successful improvisation product. In 1998, when the song is finally allowed to the stage, it is inexorably dropped. Only in 2003, in England, we hear the seventh verse return, but it has been rewritten in the meantime:

Rock me, pretty baby, rock me ’til everything gets real
Rock me for a little while, rock me 
       ’til there’s nothing left to feel
And I’ll rock you too
I’m tryin’ to get closer but I’m still a million miles from you

… rewritten to the version as it is published officially (in Lyrics and on the site). Dylan seems to think it’s okay now; in 2004 and 2005 this rewritten Lyrics version is maintained – but in the dying year of the song, 2008, the stanza, together with the preceding and the concluding one, is removed again. The void is filled – rather un-dylanesquely – with long, somewhat rudderless guitar solos.

A pity, still. The rewritten version is superior; both ’til everything gets real and ’til there’s nothing left to feel have the same colour, communicate the same emotional wound as “Cold Irons Bound” and “Dirt Road Blues”, as Time Out Of Mind at all, actually. And the intentional or unintentional reverence to “Rock Me Baby”, or rather, to its real father “Rockin’ And Rollin’” by Lil’ Son Jackson from 1950 remains intact. Not inconceivable, this reverence option; the song is one of the stepfathers of the unsightly snippet that a slightly bored Dylan shakes off in ’73, during the recordings for the Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid soundtrack, and which is later polished up and promoted to a world hit by Old Crow Medicine Show and Darius Rucker, of the throwaway “Rock Me Mama (Like A Wagon Wheel)”.

Colleagues hardly have problems with it, for that matter, with the skipped or rewritten rock me couplet. The two best-known covers, the one by Alvin Youngblood Hart (2002) and the one by Bonnie Raitt from 2012, simply stick to the discarded lyrics of the original studio recording, and unconcernedly rock all at once, rock happily for a couple of months.

To be continued. Next up Million Miles part 7: Songs that float in a luminous haze

 

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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2 Responses to Million Miles part 6: Like a wagon wheel

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    A literary licence that allows one to decide which verses are ‘appropiate’ – and which are not- must be tough to get.

    But well worth the effort if any feeling of hubris on the part of a critic just drips like water off a duck’s back.

    Methinks, all that’s really required is a two-dollar room and a two-dollar broom.

  2. Larry Fyffe says:

    The janitor is someone who cleans up the mess other people leave …..

    An appropriate so-called “filler” if there ever was one

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