Million Miles (1997) part 8: Write twenty verses while you’re in The Zone

by Jochen Markhorst

I know plenty of people who would put me up for a day or two  
Yes, I’m tryin’ to get closer but I’m still a million miles from you

It is catalogued as “humorous fiction” and as “psychological fiction”, Marni Jackson’s Don’t I Know You? from 2016, and other labels would fit the charming collection of stories too. The work consists of 14 short stories telling life chapters of the protagonist Rose McEwan, offering – chronologically – as many snapshots of Rose’s life from age 17 to 60. The “gimmick”, so to speak, of the story cycle, is Rose’s encounters – in each chapter Rose happens to meet a Famous Person, or a person who will later become famous, who is still in “the lobby of his life”, as Jackson calls it. At seventeen, she attends a writing class and attracts the attention of John Updike; a few years later, a holiday job as a waitress leads to a flirtation with a charming Bill Murray, Meryl Streep wants to be her friend at a weekend spa, and so it goes on until the final chapter, a canoe trip with Taylor Swift, Leonard Cohen and Karl Ove Knausgaard.

The fifth chapter is called Bob Dylan Goes Tubing and tells how Rose arrives with her then-life partner Eric at their holiday cottage by the lake. There is an unfamiliar Citroën parked in front of the house and Eric’s nine-year-old son Ryan sees that someone is on the lake, on an air mattress.

We shaded our eyes. A pale, small, but visibly adult figure was lying on the mattress, slowly paddling with his hands toward the diving raft.

“I need the binocs.” Eric said, and went to get them. Standing on the deck he studied the figure.

“This is really weird, but whoever that is,looks exactly like Bob Dylan.” He passed the binoculars to me. He was right. A pale little guy with a pencil moustache, in a Tilley hat, was on our air mattress.

We are probably somewhere in the early 1990s (although Jackson doesn’t place too much value on historical accuracy, apparently; she suspects Dylan “is fragile right now” because Empire Burlesque, the 1985 album, is not a big seller – but he quotes “Everything Is Broken” and they sing along with Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses”, both songs from ’89. Anyway: Dylan took a wrong turn on the way to Kashagawigamog Lake, and thought he was at his destination here, at Sturgeon Lake. And now he just stays here. Marni Jackson captivatingly and believably articulates how Rose and Eric, although finding this a little weird, take it for granted. The story unfolds charmingly and smoothly, without any dramatic plot twists. Dylan goes tubbing with Ryan on the lake, has breakfast with Rose, oatmeal and syrup, philosophises with Eric about music standing in front of the record player, they play Monopoly, and one morning, after a week or two, Dylan is suddenly gone. And has then demonstrated an autobiographical truth behind this one line from “Million Miles”: I know plenty of people who would put me up for a day or two.

“Million Miles” is not really a Very Great Dylan Song, but it does have, like many Very Great Dylan Songs, a somewhat alienating ending. We’ve had seven verses of lament, the wail of an abandoned lover mourning the loss of his beloved. Autobiographical interpreters with crypto-analytical ambitions might see something like “Dylan seeks his inspiration”, the incorrigibly sentimental ones search in the Bard’s love life, and stubborn Christian fans might put an evangelical spin on it (“Dylan suffers from a crisis of faith and seeks his God”, or something like that), and sure enough, with some creative acrobatics many verses and images can be turned into metaphors supporting one interpretation or the other.

All of them, however, will have trouble squeezing this final couplet, and especially this final line, into a comprehensive interpretation. In the twenty-first century, Dylan changes the line to “There must be somebody who would put me up for a day or two” (London ’03, for instance), but that doesn’t open up any vistas either – it is still out of character. This is not lovesickness or related misery, but pure, desperate, existential loneliness, no longer words directed outwards, to a you, but rather words from a desperate inner monologue, addressed to oneself.

In the Consequence Podcast of 9 March 2022, Mike Campbell reveals Dylan’s writing routines, which may explain why Dylan’s lyrics sometimes seem to wander off. Campbell is a founding member and mainstay of Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, and Dylan’s guitarist both on stage and in the studio, so he has some expertise and some right to speak. As a songwriter, he is not unsuccessful (co-credits on Petty hits like “Refugee” and “Here Comes My Girl”, for example, as well as on Don Henley’s world hit “The Boys Of Summer”), but he still gratefully recounts the writing tips he received from Bob Dylan:

“He told me once, which was a really good tip, he said, when you’re writing a song, you know, you got your verses, your bridge and your chorus, he said, don’t stop there. Write twenty verses while you’re in The Zone. You know, the last ones might be better than all the stuff you had.”

Campbell’s revelation is in line with what Dylan himself says in Chronicles about the creation of the song “Dignity”. Long enough, that song, but there were many more couplets…

“There were more verses with other individuals in different interplays. The Green Beret, The Sorceress, Virgin Mary, The Wrong Man, Big Ben, and The Cripple and The Honkey. The list could be endless. All kinds of identifiable characters that found their way into the song but somehow didn’t survive.”

Speculation, of course, but it seems that the lyrics for “Million Miles” were also written in “The Zone”, also had twenty verses “with other individuals in different interplays”, the majority of which “somehow didn’t survive”. And that after the deletion of ten or twelve stanzas, the text became unbalanced – hence perhaps a melodious, but essentially strange stanza as the seventh, the “rock me” stanza. And in the last stanza the introduction of a narrator who seems to have a different state of mind than the previous one. The state of mind in which you desperately yearn for human company.

The state of mind which makes you crash other persons’ holidays at a cottage at Sturgeon Lake.

———–

To be continued. Next up Million Miles part 9 (final): Shall we roll it Jimmy?

 

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 (1997) part 8: Write twenty verses while you’re in The Zone

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    Focusing to long on one song out of many can be a bit disconcerting….

    For example, “I’ve been trying to get as far away from myself as I can” gives an obverse point of view.

    The balancing of the “I” with the “Other”, the search for Robert Frost’s ideal “middle path”, lingers forever on the horizon.

  2. Larry Fyffe says:

    The computer likes to print “to” more than it does “too” for some reason

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