by Jochen Markhorst
VI There’s one place I’m not wanted
Then slowly, extending from his sleeve, A cold, white, satin hand took mine. Hey, I like what you do, he said to me. I like what you do, too, I replied. I nearly died. Then his hand retracted up his sleeve, And Bob Dylan turned and took his leave, Disappearing back into the rain. (Nick Cave, The Sick Bag Song, 2015)
Cave’s poetic account of his encounter with Dylan at Glastonbury in 1998 is charming and moving, revealing a sympathetic kinship with Dylan himself: the ability to admire the artistry of colleagues without restraint. A superlative example of this is demonstrated by Cave in September 2013, when he reflects on the death of Johnny Cash, a day earlier, in The Guardian. Already the opening of that personal obituary is touching, thanks to Cave’s superior sense of dosed drama:
“I lost my innocence with Johnny Cash. I used to watch the Johnny Cash Show on television in Wangaratta when I was about 9 or 10 years old. At that stage I had really no idea about rock’n’roll. I watched him and from that point I saw that music could be an evil thing, a beautiful, evil thing.”
Cave talks about how Cash continues to fascinate him, that he covers several Cash songs throughout his career (as far back as his Australian punk days, such as “The Singer”, which he recorded with his band The Bad Seeds), and what a highlight it is when, in 2000, The Man In Black records his old underground hit, the terrifying “The Mercy Seat” from 1988. In a way, that one cover (on volume 3 of Cash’s magisterial American Recordings Series, American III: Solitary Man) definitively elevates Cave to the elite. Which he himself seems to realise, as that one cover comes up in almost every interview in the twenty-first century – where Cave always, with due pride, says something along the lines of “it doesn’t matter what anyone says, Johnny Cash recorded my song”. And in this eulogy in The Guardian, he mentions it again himself:
“He did a version of The Mercy Seat. I got a call from Rick Rubin that Johnny Cash wanted to record it and was that all right? That was pretty exciting. The version is so good. He just claims that song as he does with so many. There’s no one who can touch him. I wrote and recorded that when I was fairly young, but he has a wealth of experience which he can bring. He can sing a line and give that line both heaven and hell.”
The real highlight, however, is yet to come. In 2002, producer Rick Rubin records Cash’s last, and perhaps very best of the American Recordings, American IV: The Man Comes Around, when Cave just happens to be in Los Angeles. Rubin calls him and asks if he might want to record a song with Cash tomorrow. Cave has to depart the next day, but he still has a few hours before his plane leaves and is of course keen. He gets to choose a song himself and he chooses the old Hank Williams classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, the song of which Elvis said “I’d like to sing a song that’s probably the saddest song I’ve ever heard” (Aloha From Hawaii, 1973).
He arrived, and this man with such extraordinary generosity, such an immense spirit made me feel so much at ease. I suggested this song, and he said: “Hey yeah, Nick, I know that one. Let’s do it.” And the band started up and we just did it.
The duet is one of the many highlights of that peerless swan song American IV: The Man Comes Around.
Dylan’s and Cash’s public acknowledgement of Cave’s talent and the admiration demonstrated, retroactively elevate the already unique cover of “Wanted Man”. In 1985, a year before Cave records Cash’s “The Singer” (actually: “The Folk Singer”) for the superb cover album Kicking Against the Pricks, he records “Wanted Man” with his Bad Seeds. Remarkably, by then he apparently has status enough to be allowed to change the lyrics; both Cash and Dylan reportedly gave permission.
Cave injects the song, of course, with suspense and drama. To begin with musically. First a hesitant, searching beginning of a lonely piano chord and a wavering guitar lick over which Cave gloomily sighs “I’m a wanted man”, and from 0’17” onwards a crescendo begins with theatrical claps on every beat: it promises to be a classic build-up to a devastating climax. Which just doesn’t come: the song keeps building and building and building… but the denouement just doesn’t come – capturing perfectly the neurotic, never-ending persecution mania of a wanted man.
Lyrically, there’s something going on as well; Cave boldly tinkers with the narrative. In the first three verses, he still remains fairly text proof. The wanted man is wanted in Buffalo and Old Cheyenne, in Albuquerque and Baton Rouge – we recognise the first twelve places from the Cash/Dylan original. Only at the end of the third verse does Cave allow himself a first, insignificant deviation;
Wanted man in Arizona, wanted man in Galveston Wanted man in El Dorado, this wanted man's in great demand
… three locations coming of his own devising, announcing his first drastic text change:
If you ever catch me sleepin' Just see the price flashin' 'bove my head Well take a look again my friend That's a gun pointed at your head
… the paranoia already suggested by the music is now also expressed more explicitly by the protagonist, compounded by the raw, gasping delivery. Lucy Watson and Nellie Johnson still want him, but now the “Boller Sisters” and “Kid Callahan” also join those bounty hunters, and Cave adds tragedy; I am
A wanted man who's lost his will to live A wanted man who won't lay down There's a woman kneelin' on my grave Pushin' daisies in the ground
… unequivocally adding a deeper layer to the original. The following list of locations where he is wanted are all places with their own historical or discographical connotations: Windy City, Wounded Knee, Death Valley, El Paso, New York City, Laredo and Tupelo, after which the lyrics finally conclude with a tragic, heartbreaking denouement that is not offered by the music:
Wanted man in every cat house, wanted man in a many saloons Wanted man is a ghost in hundred homes, a shadow in a thousand rooms Wanted man down in St. Louis, wanted man in New Orleans Wanted man in Mossel Bay, wanted man in Cripple Creek Wanted man in Detroit City, wanted man in San Anton' But there's one place I'm not wanted lord It's the place that I call home
It is a plot twist with melodramatic overtones, but it brings The Other Man In Black lasting admiration of and acceptance by the two men at the top of Olympus, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan.
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