by Jochen Markhorst
IV If moonshine don’t kill me
Well, I eat when I’m hungry, drink when I’m dry / Live my life on the square Even if the flesh falls off my face / It won’t matter, long as you’re there Feel like a ghost in love Underneath the heavens above Feel further away than I ever did before Feel further than I can take Dreamin’ of you is all I do But it’s driving me insane
The Original Soundtrack to the 2007 Dylan biopic I’m Not There is a treasure trove. A double CD with 34 lovely Dylan covers, almost all of them surprising, original and quirky. Even such usual suspects as “All Along the Watchtower” (Eddie Vedder), “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (Antony and the Johnsons) and “The Times They Are a-Changin’” (Mason Jennings), which are apparently unavoidable, qualitatively stand out from the thousands of covers that already exist of these songs. But the real magic of the collection comes from the dusted-off insider tips, from the covers of songs that suffer a languishing existence at the outer edges of Dylan’s vast catalogue. “Can’t Leave Her Behind”, “I’m Not There”, the brilliant “Goin’ to Acapulco” cover by Jim James and Calexico, John Doe’s unsurpassed “Pressing On”, “Billy 1” by Los Lobos… both the selection and the performances show genuine, intrinsic Dylan love and knowledge.
Within that list of exotic birds, Bob Forrest’s “The Moonshiner” is the odd duck out. Not because of Bob Forrest, obviously. The frontman of Thelonious Monster, who, after a devastating detour through heroin hell in 1999, was helped back into the saddle by men from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, returning under the name The Bicycle Thief with the smashingly beautiful album You Come And Go Like A Pop Song, can still do no wrong in 2007. His contribution to I’m Not There is “just” another one of the heartwarming highlights. No, his song choice is remarkable, is the odd duck out: it is the only song on the 34-song track list that is not a Dylan song. “The Moonshiner” is a traditional, written probably half a century before Dylan was born.
However, it is defensible, up to a point, to call it a Dylan song. The song is still quite popular when Dylan records it during the Times They Are A-Changin’ sessions in 1963, but it is not selected for the album at the time, nor is it ever on Dylan’s set list. After 1963, “The Moonshiner” still does float around in hard-core folk circles for about thirty years (plus a peerless recording by Tim Hardin, 1971), until The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991 is released, featuring that forgotten Dylan recording. Which leads to a major reappraisal. In the years that follow, the song appears on the track and setlists of names such as Uncle Tupelo, Cat Power, David Bromberg and Rich Lerner – to name but a few; “The Moonshiner” is experiencing quite a revival, after the success of that bootleg box in 1991.
The origin is unclear, but the song is at least a hundred years old and there are – of course – dozens of text variants. After 1991, nearly all colleagues follow Dylan’s lyrics. But Dylan himself seems, when he records “Dreamin’ Of You” in 1997, to have the version in his head as he once learned it: the one by The Clancy Brothers from 1961. Not so much because of the lines that return word for word in “Dreamin’ Of You”, but because of the opening words with The Clancy Brothers:
I'm a rambler, I'm a gambler, I'm a long way from home And if you don't like me You can leave me alone I'll eat when I'm hungry And I'll drink when I'm dry And if moonshine don't kill me I'll live till I die
… “I’m a rambler and I’m a gambler”, which echoes almost literally in “Red River Shore”, that other Time Out Of Mind outtake, is not sung in any version other than The Clancy Brothers. And “Moonshiner” playing in Dylan’s head should be clear enough from the words that follow: I’ll eat when I’m hungry and I’ll drink when I’m dry, which is sung in virtually every version, including those by Dylan, Bob Forrest and The New Lost City Ramblers (Tim Hardin sings the “Kentucky Moonshiner” version; Corn bread when i’m hungry, corn liquor when i’m dry).
So, for some reason, perhaps the white moonlight from the previous stanza, the stream of consciousness in Dylan’s creating mind meanders via Henry Rollins to an antique folksong that he had in his repertoire almost forty years ago. At least, the disturbing image from the next line, Even if the flesh falls off my face, is something Scott Warmuth has also found with Rollins, in one of the 61 dreams described in Black Coffee Blues:
“One guy comes through the door and I unload an entire clip into him but he keeps coming at me. Flesh is falling off his face, his skull is made of metal. He smiles and falls.”
In itself that is, of course, a bit too thin to draw an a-ha! line to Dylan. Flesh falling off bones or bodies or faces as an image of mortality and our corruptible lives is admittedly rather gruesome, and for that reason alone has never become mainstream, but it is hardly unique. We know the image from plenty of film horror scenes, Dylan himself has been singing along with “O Death” for years (Leave the body and leave it cold / To draw up the flesh off of the frame), Hieronymus Bosch was painting flesh-ripping scenes already five hundred years ago, and the opening line of Dylan’s own “Foot Of Pride” uses a similar idiom: “Like the lion tears the flesh off from a man”.
Still, these words are surrounded by literal quotes and unmistakable paraphrases from Rollins’ work… it is quite likely that Warmuth is right, that Dylan got this gruesome image also from the ferocious poet from Washington DC. And he really likes them, these lines; they move almost unchanged to “Standing In The Doorway”:
I’ll eat when I’m hungry, drink when I’m dry And live my life on the square And even if the flesh falls off of my face I know someone will be there to care
… where its beauty, arguably, indeed does shine even brighter. Well, less sinister anyway. In a soft, white moonshiner’s light.
To be continued. Next up Dreamin’ Of You part 5: It’s me, Cathy
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