By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood
Prelude from Tony: I took on this series following a suggestion by Aaron (with whom I’ve written a number of earlier series, Aaron himself providing the research and background, myself filling in some detail and personal opinion). And I love doing this because with Aaron choosing the songs, it takes me into all sorts of areas that I have never really contemplated and music I didn’t know.
For example, I had never heard “Lawyers, Guns and Money” before it turned up in this series, and it is still getting a regular playing in my house, both in terms of listening to the original and the various cover versions. (Which makes me think there might be a series to be had out of “Cover versions of Dylan’s favourite songs” although that I rather suspect is going one step too far.)
But back to the here and now, and we are now at song number 10 in the list Bob provided for “Far Out” magazine of his favourite songs. In fact Bob only nominated four performer / songwriters within his list of favourite songs: Gordon Lighfoot, Warren Zevon, Randy Newman and John Prine. And today for episode 11 we are back Gordon Lightfoot for his third and final contribution.
There’s a full list of the episodes in this series as usual at the foot of the article, but in case you want a bit of background first, the three Gordon Lightfoot nominated songs were Shadows, ‘Sundown’, and now here we have, ‘If You Could Read My Mind’.
Now the song in question.
And if you have been following this little series, or if you are conversant with Gordon Lightfoot’s extraordinary ability as a songwriter, you’ll know where we are going with this song, even if you have never heard it before (which seems unlikely).
It is another utterly extraordinary piece – something many people feel from the moment the original recording starts alternating just two chords with an utterly magical melody above it, and lyrics that must dig into the heart of anyone with any sort of feelings and uncertainties within her or his life.
The song is a look back to Lightfoot’s thoughts on his divorce with a combination of extraordinary honesty and extraordinary poetic delicacy about what has happened – and all the time there is that amazing melody circling around and around.
So thus we have it – extraordinarily beautiful melody, unusual chord changes which use perfectly usual chords but in a different way, and such poignant lyrics. Just consider
In a castle dark or a fortress strong With chains upon my feet You know that ghost is me And I will never be set free As long as I am a ghost, you can't see
As a person who has been divorced twice, and lost multiple other relationships, these words pierce my heart – and I suppose this is the point of such amazing songwriting. If one has been there, a song like this says everything. And if you are lucky, and have loved and stayed in love through your life then there is still the melody – and the knowledge of how lucky you are. If not, the lyrics are there if you fancy having a few extra nails hammered into your emotional backdrop.
When you reach the part where the heartaches come The hero would be me But heroes often fail And you won't read that book again Because the ending's just too hard to take
But in fact we don’t have to go that far or that deep. Just the opening lines, which with a less moving melody might sound trite, now sound utterly extraordinary…
If you could read my mind, love What a tale my thoughts could tell
I’m putting another video below – a video that is not only of interest because it is about Gordon Lightfoot, but it is particularly interesting as it includes a number of comments about Bob Dylan talking about Gordon Lightfoot. It then gets into the technicalities of how the song is written which are I guess primarily added for musicians and particularly for up-and-coming songwriters who want to have an answer to “what did he do there to get that sound?” but still, the opening I think will be of interest to most people.
And I sympathise with the problems those involved in the “What makes this song great” video have, for trying to make this interesting to everyone else is tough going. And indeed I know this myself for just recently Jochen Markhorst (whose writing you will of course know if you are a regular reader on this site) asked me to help a little in considering how 5/4 time was used by Nick Drake in the recording of that most amazing piece of music “River Man”. I did write out my thoughts on how Drake used that most unusual time structure, and gave the notes to Jochen.
By coincidence just yesterday I started to read Jochen’s book “Nick Drake’s River Man: A very British masterpiece”, and (literally) fell off my chair when I found myself reading my two page explanation of what Drake did with the 5/4 time signature that was not just so unusual but as far as I know unique.
So I know from recent experience just how hard it is to explain how a piece of music is written, and re-reading my commentary just yesterday how difficult it is to explain the clever twists and turns genius composers come up with, in a way that might be interesting to the non-musical reader. Jochen’s book incidentally is available here – if you know River Man you really must read it – not in any way for my small part in the affair, but because it really does help us all consider that work of utter genius.
But enough of that, back to the plot. To me, the “What makes this song great” explanation of “If you could read my mind” on the video below is so detailed that I think it loses the sense of creativity that comes with the writing. And not because the speaker doesn’t know his stuff – he most certainly does. It is just incredibly hard to do, as I found out with my explanation of how 5/4 time is used in “River Man.”
I don’t know how Lightfoot added all those twists and turns to the accompaniment that the commentator goes into in such detail in the video below, but from the songwriters I have chatted to, I know that often it is by chance – it just comes along suddenly and one thinks “yes that’s it”, and “that’s what I need there.” (I don’t think that applies to River Man, because that is a song on another planet, but it applies here and this is a song of genius).
This video is by Rick Beato, music producer.
So back with the main theme – “If you could read my mind” – we have a wonderful, wonderful song, with every element being perfect, and in the video above every element being reduced down to its individual sub-atomic particles. I am not sure I want to go that far – but if you do, there it is.
In the case of Lightfoot, for me, just hearing it and knowing it is about his divorce is enough.
Overall, “What makes this song great” is an interesting approach, but to me it loses the creativity and suggests that we could all be great songwriters if we pinched some of these techniques. No, “If you could read my mind” is great because it has a beautiful melody, powerful and painful lyrics, and gently different chords.
“River Man” was different – it goes beyond greatness onto another planet, and hence breaking it down somewhat helps if one wants to know how the previously unheard and unconsidered effects within the song were achieved. With “If you could read my mind” a simpler explanation will suffice. Gorgeous melody, somewhat unusual chords in passing, a painful theme but with the thought of survival, and the unique notion of a songwriter writing to his ex about their actual real-life divorce. It is a wonderful, wonderful song. Painful but wonderful.
Digging into what makes a song work can be helpful – but is certainly not always necessary. Sometimes yes, but not always.
- Bob Dylan’s favourite songs: Death of an Unpopular Poet
- Bob Dylan’s favourite songs 2: Shadows
- Dylan’s favourite songs 3: ‘Desperado Under the Eaves’
- Dylan’s favourite songs 4: Randy Newman: Sail Away
- Dylan’s favourite songs 5: Sam Stone
- Dylan’s favourite songs 6: He Went to Paris’
- Bob Dylan’s favourite songs 7: Sundown (Gordon Lightfoot)
- Bob Dylan’s favourite songs 8: “Burn down the cornfield”
- Bob Dylan’s favourite songs 9: Donald and Lydia