By Tony Attwood, based on the series The Never Ending Tour by Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet).
This version of “Don’t think twice” turned up in 2000 (noted in the review “Back to Bedrock part one”)
The song is obviously a song of leaving, a song that says the relationship is over, but don’t worry about it, we had a good time, and all things come to an end.
Which is unusual for generally leaving songs are either songs of great regret and sadness or rather unpleasant bitterness. One of the two people in the relationship needs to break it up, and more than likely the other doesn’t. And yes I have a special feeling for these songs for it’s something that I have rather too much experience of, with me being the party that is left – which is perhaps why I have always been fascinated by this song. How does one break up a relationship without someone getting hurt?
And there is that contradiction, that he wishes she would do or say something to make him stay, and the fact that she is not doing or saying anything, and that she is just continuing to criticise him or complain about something, or not spend enough time with him or whatever… that is the problem and the heart of the wistfulness of the song.
That wistfulness: that is what Bob captures here more than in other versions. He really wanted it to work but it isn’t working and she won’t change so he’s off without saying goodbye. And that is what this rendition captures utterly and totally. That contradiction of feelings and emotions.
So we have gone through two verses, and it sounds as if we are going to get an instrumental break, but no, it is cut short and in comes “It ain’t no use in calling out…”
The essence here is in the famous lines
I'm a-thinking and a-wonderin' walking down the roadI once loved a woman, a child, I'm told I give her my heart but she wanted my soul But don't think twice, it's all right
And speaking of wistfulness just listen to that line, “I once loved a woman, a child, I’m told”. Is there a more wistful line within popular music? Probably, but at the moment I can’t think of it.
The issue in the song is, is this a line delivered to the woman he is leaving or it is just ruminating on his past which is why he’s moving on – the past has meant he finds it hard to have relationships?
Obviously, none of us really know, and any hints that are found in the lyrics can be accepted or disregarded on the grounds that Dylan is never that clear anyway.
But why this version?
Because it does something that is obvious when one looks at it and hears it, but it has never been done before in the multiple performances by Bob and by millions of others (at least not as far as I’ve heard).
First, the piece has a jaunty beat, which reflects the positive thoughts of the man walking away – he’s finally done it and left her, and there’s no point in looking and thinking about it. That’s how the song starts, and this version captures that thought perfectly. It’s gentle, because yes even if he didn’t love her he was fond of her.
So he tells her she won’t find him even if she looks with that wonderful “dark side of the road” image – something which I find many people just hear but don’t consider. Being “on the dark side of the road” doesn’t just mean he’s left in the night, it means so much more. He’s hiding from her, he’s doing something illegal, he’s mixing with a bad set… we are not sure what, but there’s something there.
And it is, “I give her my heart but she wanted my soul, But don’t think twice, it’s all right” which in this version is the key to the change of the music. Bob places an emphasis on “she wanted my soul” and the instrumental break continues the musical treatment much as before: he’s creeping out.
Now here I want to divert slightly and point out that this version has two very different instrumental breaks. The first one continues the theme set in the music thus far, and we can just hear the notes from the acoustic guitar reflecting on the situation, but over the two verses of break there is a sense of greater liberation as the guitar almost reflects that the man leaving the woman is speeding up (which is clever given that the music doesn’t do that at all).
Yet we are gentle again for the “long and lonesome road” verse, and we get to that sudden upturn with that sudden, unexpected “get out of my way” line “You could’ve done better but I don’t mind You just kinda wasted my precious time” which changes the whole perspective on the song.
It is a line that deserves a change of music, although keeping the music the same, as normally happens, emphasises the fact that he is creeping out. But with that version of the music he becomes cowardly, just walking away, not liberated from the fact that they are just a couple but not really together. He’s run away but his mind is not free.
But now in this version, that changes.
At first, this is just another instrumental break although with a little bit more of a beat, but listen carefully to the guitar – there is more bounce just before the harmonica comes in. Then suddenly it is quiet – he is creeping out, but there is fun and joyfulness in the harmonica and as he gets further away there’s more fun and expression until the band ups the volume. He’s out on the open road where he wants to be. And that sudden change of pace at the centre – he is swaggering his way along the open road. Yes he really is good about his newfound liberty. It was an experience, it’s over, it’s done, this is better.
In a sense, this musical interpretation is somewhat obvious, but on the other hand I don’t think anyone did this before, and it is one of those musical moments that only becomes obvious after it has been done. It wasn’t something anyone thought of in the previous 37 years of the song’s life – at least not as far as I know.
And there’s one more thing: changing the pace of a tune within the performance is incredibly rare for Dylan. I’m sure there are other instances, but I don’t think there are many. He’s given us a treat here, and I love it.
Other articles in this series
- 1: John Brown 1987
- 2: Desolation Row. 1990.
- 3: She Belongs to Me
- 4: Tangled up in Blue
- 5: I and I – power without meaning
- 6: It ain’t me babe – go lightly.
- 7: Perfection in desolation – Gates of Eden
- 8: Girl from the North Country.
- 9: When He Returns
- 10: It’s alright Ma
- 11: Satisfied Mind
- 12: Visions of Johanna
- 13: Dark Eyes
- 14: Man in the long black coat