by Jochen Markhorst
II Wanted Man in Birmingham
I’m sitting on my terrace, lost in the stars Listening to the sounds of the sad guitars Been thinking it all over, and I thought it all through I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you
After the cinematic exposition of the opening two lines, reminiscent of Heine, the song immediately takes a curious, strangely ambivalent turn. The pensive stargazer on his terrace apparently is not, as the opening promises, an emotional dreamer at all, but a rather clinical, down-to-earth analyst who now shares with us the outcome of a rational consideration. For it is an announcement of some surprise, “I have decided to give myself to you” – not very romantic, really.
The specific choice of words seems borrowed from an indestructible monument, from Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You”. Originally a B-side, incredibly, from the most perfect single in the history of country music, “Oh, Lonesome Me b/w I Can’t Stop Loving You” (1958, and both originated in one divinely inspired writing session as well, on Friday afternoon, 7 June 1957). But immortalised by Ray Charles, of course. And torch-bearers like Elvis, Sinatra, Paul Anka, Jerry Lee, Van The Man, and well, everyone in the premier league really, keep the flame burning. Which makes the word combination “I’ve made up my mind to…”, the opening words, belonging to the song forever.
The message, however, we have also heard once before with Dylan, also in a romance-suggesting context:
All right, I’ll take a chance, I will fall in love with you If I’m a fool you can have the night, you can have the morning too
… in the controversial “Is Your Love In Vain?” (Street-Legal, 1978). Controversial because quite a few critics analyse that
- a) a male chauvinist pig with an incorrigible Archie Bunker mentality is speaking here, and
- b) the “I” is Bob Dylan himself – the ineradicable, childish misconception that I = the writer himself, that is.
Dylan deftly dodges that odd accusation here. In “Is Your Love In Vain?” it is abundantly clear that the “You” is a lady, a female suitor even. Fall in love with you, Can you cook and sew, make flowers grow… quite explicit, all in all . That clarity is lacking in “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You”; the “You” could be anything. A woman, but also God, the fans, Art, Jesus, a drug of choice – the “You” is ambiguous enough, so analysts can choose from a whole palette of interpretation possibilities. “The audience” is a popular one. Also because then again the step to I = Dylan himself is so tantalisingly small, of course. And because it’s a charming, appealing interpretation at all. Dylan, sitting on the terrace of his Malibu home on a balmy coronalockdown summer evening, pondering under the stars, in the living room Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” is playing, and then he contemplates that he will record another album and resume his Never Ending Tour, something like that. “I have decided to give myself to you, my audience, for another four years.” Fits quite well, and wholeheartedly on the third verse, the lyrics of the first bridge;
I’m giving myself to you, I am From Salt Lake City to Birmingham From East LA to San Antone I don’t think I could bear to live my life alone
… where, to further excite the biographical analysts, all four places mentioned are indeed on Dylan’s 2022 tour calendar; 30 June he plays Salt Lake City, Birmingham 5 April, Los Angeles 14-16 June, and 13 and 14 March San Antonio. An inside joke we’ve also seen before; “Wanted Man”, the song Dylan writes for his comrade Johnny Cash’s San Quentin concert in 1969, lists 14 place names of cities on Cash’s 1968/69 tour schedule.
Ambivalent it remains, of course. After all, the listener has been conditioned for decades now to hear a romantic confession in an outpouring like “I give myself to you”. “For Sentimental Reasons”, Johnny Winters’ “Ain’t That Kindness” (1970, the funky rocker with the amusing Dylan reference Two riders were approachin’ / But they were no friends of mine), Ray Charles’ early croon-song “If I Give You My Love”, “Drive My Car”, Lee Dorsey’s “A Lover Was Born”… from all corners and all decades of pop music we know songs in which a protagonist makes an overtly intellectually motivated decision to fall in love. Outnumbered, of course, by the millions of songs in which the heart overpowers the brains, in which the first-person cannot control the infatuation, songs like “I’ve Just Seen A Face”, Tom Waits’ “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You” and half the American Songbook up to extremes like Dylan’s “Dirge” (I hate myself for lovin’ you), but still: we have long since accepted the rational announcement “I give myself to you” as a declaration of love as well.
The song poet, the walking music encyclopaedia and living jukebox Bob Dylan, knows that too, of course. But he muddies the romantic connotations as early as the ensuing second verse:
I saw the first fall of snow I saw the flowers come and go I don’t think that anyone ever else ever knew I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you
… pushing the listener’s associations more towards melancholy, end-of-life, elderly contemplation. Although “The first fall of snow” may still be somewhat ambiguous – it is the same metaphor Robert Burns uses for “the first kiss” in “To A Kiss”, the ode that DJ Dylan quotes in its entirety in the bonus episode “Kiss” of his Theme Time Radio Hour, February 2015 (Love’s first snow-drop, virgin kiss).
Nor is a romantic connotation predominant in the sequel. I saw the flowers come and go is another contribution to one of the dominant motifs of Rough And Rowdy Ways, the album that already opens with
Today and tomorrow and yesterday too The flowers are dying like all things do
… the opening words of track 1, “I Contain Multitudes”. In track 3, “My Own Version Of You”, the protagonist speaks All through the summers into January as he dwells in a “winter of discontent”, in “Crossing The Rubicon” all seasons pass, “Key West” lies outside time (Bougainvillea blooming in the summer, in the spring / Winter here is an unknown thing)… the passage of time, of the flowers coming and going, is a thing on Rough And Rowdy Ways. Still, as it should be in an exceptional Dylan song, the gateway to other interpretations remains open; after all, “flowers” symbolises expressions of love. “I’ve seen the flowers come and go” is as much a poetic account of the blossoming and again extinction of an amorous love.
The third line, the last line before the chorus line, is not too exciting. “I don’t think anyone else ever knew” suggests a furtive love story, adultery perhaps, but Dylan’s rehashing of it on the studio recording, and the indifferent variants on the live performances already signal that the poet himself does not attach too much weight to this verse either. For Dylanologists, though, the studio rehash I don’t think that anyone ever else ever knew is a fine example of what we’ve heard studio personnel like engineers Chris Shaw and Malcolm Burn explain many times before – Dylan cares relatively little about mistakes like that. As long as the sound is right. Dylan mainly wants to hear the right guy, his persona for these lyrics, when judging the recording; the emotion, the colour, the guy. “It was never about whether it was in tune or out of tune or anything like that,” as Burn explains in Uncut, 2008.
And this is a guy who starts stuttering when he thinks back to days gone by, apparently.
To be continued. Next up I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You part 3: Give the Salt Lakers what they want
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