Intro By Tony Attwood
Recently Jemmy Joe wrote to me with a copy of his own recording of “Dark Eyes”, telling me this was to be the first of a once-a-month set of releases of Dylan covers next year, and wondering if “Untold Dylan” would like to mention the work.
Here’s the recording…
I wrote back saying that the arrangement wasn’t to my taste but asking Jemmy to tell me more about his work. He has replied and I’m publishing his commentary below.
But before moving on to that I would like to say a little more about the video and music, now I have had a chance to consider it further.
I have to say I still find the video very disturbing, and after the first two views/listens, I have taken to listening to the music without watching the screen. And I have also gone back to read my own review of the song published on this site some 15 years ago (although subsequently updated a little). And I’m quoting myself not out of some sense of my being right or clever (or come to that old), but rather because by pure chance I made a point that I think is relevant here. I wrote…
“Returning to “Dark Eyes” after years of singing it myself in different arrangements in folk clubs (and I must admit, for my own enjoyment) it is a jolt to realise how straight is Dylan’s recording.
“It’s his song, so he can decide what is done with it – but the options and possibilities with this song are enormous – the speed can vary, the power can grow, it can be strummed instead of plucked… Over the years I seem to have done everything possible to it.
“But Dylan in his recording gives us the bare bones.”
And now this new recording from Jemmy Joe really does make that point. It is a song of a million possibilities. And listening to this new recording without watching the video (which I still find hard to take) I am struck by the way it is possible to retain the meaning of the original with an extra layer on top.
To explain, Dylan commented that he created the song after passing a call girl in a hotel. Not knowing that when I first heard the song I took it to be about the way the demands of everyday working life, followed by an evening of watching TV could remove all life, energy and creativity from people. Effectively, being human in this world removes the essence of humanity from us.
Now this utterly different version, which as I said, didn’t appeal to me at first, suddenly reminds me of my earlier interpretation. For there are so many ways in which people can manage to get through existence. Some revel in family life, some in isolation, some with substance abuse, some in family life, some in untold riches, some in power…
Thus there can be the horrors of the contemporary world around everywhere to be seen, but there can also be escapes. In fact a multiplicity of escapes.
I was of course helped along in my re-adjustment to this song by the comments made back to me by the performer Jemmy Joe who replied to my comment that I found his version disturbing. I present these below, unedited…
Comments by Jemmy Joe back to Tony Attwood
Your hearing the original words and my musical direction, never mind the music video, being out of step with each other is quite pleasing. Though I accept not being to everyone’s taste, it is somewhat vindicating when someone dislikes what I do for the right reasons.
I am seeking to explore the borders of what a song can mean by how it is presented. My view of Dylan is that he is a songwriter more like Gershwin or Irving Berlin than Joni Mitchell or The Beatles: the work is meant to be interpreted both musically and in-depth of meaning, not accepted as finished works. I know I am not unique in seeing that even Dylan doesn’t do Dylan straight: he is an interpreter of his own songs from night to night and most recently in the wonderful “Shadow Kingdom” collection. With Dylan, a song’s tone can change and give it a different story than the original meant or was even capable of. The best “uncovering” of Dylan does this.
The perfect example within Dylan’s classic interpreters is Johnny Cash’s version of “It Ain’t Me Babe” versus Dylan’s original. A friend of mine was critical of JC’s take because it had none of the pathos and yearning of the right partner that he heard in the original. Dylan was resentful, lonely at being misunderstood and tired of the nonsense. Cash seemed to be amused, winking at who he’s singing to and saying, “Good luck, babe”. My friend was critical of that, saying Cash “didn’t get it”. But I believe it was it was a great compliment to the song. Many of Dylan’s other works have a flexibility of situation, character and root meaning. If you can hear yourself or your world understand in a song, you ought to express it as honestly as you can, even if it goes against other’s perception or the original recording.
“Dark Eyes” is a look at the world. An observer is seeing human frailty, games being played, the failure of society. Behind it all, at its core, this person can see one individual (the “dark eyes” he is looking eyeball to eyeball with) with the sadness and weight of it all within them. The original recording’s tone fits this reading. But upon reflecting of the song and story, I pulled back. I want to see the person seeing. Who is it that is seeing this society that is missing the lovers’ pearls? What is their story? Who do I see singing this song from their heart?
That person is a snotty, condescending punk kid. “I’m Not Like Other Girls” personified. They are too clever for their own good and think they’re better than people who live normal lives. Basically, I see a younger me. I am amused, but I don’t think they’re as smart as they think they are. They surely aren’t as empathetic as they think they are. I appreciate Thoreau’s fellow who is following the beat of their owner drummer, but if you’re in a marching band that’s not going to work. To my younger self, I’d say “Friend, we *are* all in a marching band together.”
While I have some judgments against the younger me and find the sympathies of the narrator of this song to be self-isolating, I wanted to create a track that matched that spirit of youth. I could be a bit exhausting then, but I was pretty fun. I am generations off from the source, but I was raised on rock n roll. From the retro soundtracks from movies like “Stand By Me” or “American Graffiti” and then an uncelebrated by invigorating rock n roll revival in the punk scene of the Bay Area in the 1990s, I grew up listening to music from the 1950s or bands seriously aping the styles. When I was most clever and poetic, “head in the clouds so I can see the stars”, this is the music I was listening to. I do believe a poet rock n roller could have written a song that sounded like this and meant it. It may discordant to the original, but only because I am not Bob Dylan. I have felt these words in my life. But those feelings were without pathos but with a wink. Good luck, babe!
As for the video, visual art is my least skilled medium but my most actually “creative”. With music, I am good enough to aim. I might miss, but I know what I am trying to do and have a likely ability to get close if not hit my mark. With visual art, I do not have that skill. I am floating over a point like a seagull over a bit of potential food because I don’t know how to get on the ground and just grab it. Not to be overly serious about myself, but this video was very subconsciously created. “What would happen if I did this?” is the general methodology of its creation. Noting to myself that I had no plan or idea, I will point out that it is probably no accident that you can’t see my eyes in the video and the eyes that are on the screen are askew and twisted. I don’t know what that means. I didn’t mean it to mean something. I didn’t have a plan. But I also think the passive nature of visual art for me is still expressing something I intend without meaning too. Certainly in how I feel about this song, this video makes sense.
But none of this is suitable for a blog. I know, I know. Semi-edited thoughts that a disinterested reader could easily call “ramblings”. I’d have no defense. Well, I suppose my defense is simply I don’t have anyone in my life with whom I can talk seriously about Dylan’s work and my own art. I hope I’ve kept your interest enough that you’d get to this point where I thank you for your patience. I do have it in me to write a “think piece” blogpost about this song. Maybe there is something to edit and clarify to a sharp point in everything I wrote. But maybe I ought to skip it for this song. Again, I have about twelve songs already recorded, ready for release, and maybe I should save my ammo for the future songs. While I have created songs that are even more trying on the average Dylan fan’s taste, I do have some work I know are well within “the pocket” of what people would like for the work. I’ll pass it on if you’re still interested in hearing it.
Thank you again for your time and the work you already do.
Footnote by Tony: As you might know, I write an occasional series on this site on the cover versions of Dylan’s work, and something in all the above reminded me of one such cover which I highlighted in that series. By way of conclusion, here it is.