by Jochen Markhorst
II I shot a man in Reno
Wanted man in California, wanted man in Buffalo
Wanted man in Kansas City, wanted man in Ohio
Wanted man in Mississippi, wanted man in old Cheyenne
Wherever you might look tonight, you might see this wanted man
“Last week, uh, in Nashville, Bob Dylan, one of the top writers… well, I don’t need to tell you who Bob Dylan is. The greatest writer of our time was at our house, and he and I sat down and wrote a song together. Let me see if I can find that damn thing, I’ll sing it for you. Yeah, here it is. It’s called Wanted Man. Do you know the introduction Bob? OK.” That last question is addressed to lead guitarist Bob Wootton, who then effortlessly splashes a “Folsom Prison Blues”- like intro from his guitar. Which kicks off “Wanted Man” on Johnny Cash At San Quentin – the opening track on the legendary album (1969), but number 15 on Cash’s actual setlist, that February day in California.
The claim that “he and I sat down and wrote a song together” might be a bit overblown – presumably, Cash also noticed that Dylan copied the place names from his tour schedule, or maybe he did spell them out, and therefore feels some kind of authorship. Either way, not a big deal. More interesting are the half-mumbled comment Let me see if I can find that damn thing, and the observation that we do indeed see him looking at a paper on his lectern during the song: so by now, six days after that funny Take 1, he has a written-out version of the lyrics. All the more interesting because these – now official – lyrics are so vastly different from the handwritten lyrics published in the 2019 booklet of The Bootleg Series Vol. 15 1967-1969: Travelin’ Thru (on page 29). Every line is different, including the opening couplet/refrain:
Wanted man in Carolina, Wanted Man in Buffalo Wanted Man in Arizona, Wanted Man in Ohio Wanted Man in Kansas City, Wanted Man in Old Chyanne [sic] Everywhere you look tonight, boys, I am a Wanted Man
So far, hardly spectacular differences; “Carolina” instead of “California” or “Kansas City” instead of “Mississippi” is, of course, not that relevant. More fascinating is the rest of that photographed manuscript in the booklet: after this slightly different refrain, we see two-and-a-half more stanzas, including corrections and alternative verses, that differ wholly and utterly from the final text. There is no trace of the first verse, for instance, in the final version:
I find a seat in Reno, and I’m doing mighty fine The boss he tips his hat to me and I in turn tip mine (take my money) I’m just about to collect my winnings, every nickel, every dime (I was born to make this killing) But someone always recognizes me before it’s time
Fine verse, and for Dylanologists, it sheds priceless light on the workings of Dylan’s creativity. “I find a seat in Reno” and the third alternative of verse 3 “I was born to make a killing”… Dylan chooses as his first-person narrator a protagonist who almost automatically imposes himself on him as he sits next to Johnny Cash at a table here:
When I was just a baby my mama told me: Son, Always be a good boy, don't ever play with guns. But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die Now every time I hear that whistle, I hang my head and cry.
… the leading actor from “Folsom Prison Blues”, one of Cash’s signature songs, one of his first songs too (written in 1953), and the song with which he scored a No 1 hit just a few months ago, in the summer of 1968 (the live version from At Folsom Prison). There is no way Dylan is not thinking of the song when he writes the line I find a seat in Reno. He himself played “Folsom Prison Blues” with the guys of The Band at the Basement not so long ago; in May ’69, still in Nashville, he records it during the Self Portrait sessions, in 1987 he plays it with the men of The Grateful Dead, and from 1991 onwards it is on the setlist 20 times. When the theme “Jail” is on, at his Theme Time Radio Hour (season 1, episode 6), the monument is – of course – the opening song, and DJ Dylan again quotes exactly this line, or rather, he quotes verbatim from Cash; The Autobiography from 1997;
Johnny said he wrote the line I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die because he was trying to think of the worst reason for killing another person. He added: “It did come to mind quite easily, though.” When Johnny Cash performed first at San Quentin, Merle Haggard was in the audience. And by “audience” I mean: jail.
“Wanted Man” would thus have been set up as a kind of prequel to “Folsom Prison Blues”, as the background of the hunted criminal who is eventually, in Cash’s song, caught and locked up. Which is a nice idea, and its execution is also fine – a line like The boss he tips his hat to me and I in turn tip mine is already as wonderful a Dylan-worthy line as the opening of this verse, which initially seems to be about a successful gambler.
In the second instance, however, apparently after Dylan has also written a second and a third stanza, he seems to want to lay the Folsom Prison connotation on even thicker, prickling in small print between the third and fourth lines that I was born to make this killing-alternative. Nice line, and the hint to “Folsom Prison Blues” is also successful, but: the plot is disrupted. Now it’s no longer a successful gambler at a gaming table in Reno, and furthermore the last line, But someone always recognises me before it’s time, does not fit anymore and should now be rewritten as well.
It is unknown, and somewhat puzzling, why Dylan did not do so. The greatest writer of our time should have no problem with that, and the rest of the manuscript demonstrates his “usual” extraordinary form today. He doesn’t seem to be short of time either; the handwriting is neat, he uses no abbreviations, no “&” instead of “and”, even the past participles are written with end-g (doing, working), and the manuscript gives four alternate verse lines… time enough, apparently.
No, it almost seems as if a lonesome whistle has suddenly blown away his blues.
To be continued. Next: Wanted Man part 3: Now, I admire Merle
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
- Time Out Of Mind: The Rising of an Old Master
- Crossing The Rubicon: Dylan’s latter-day classic