By Tony Attwood
Where to begin? Where to begin?
This song is so utterly amazing, so un-Dylan, yet so Dylan – undoubtedly because of the input of Rick Danko. As I understand it from reports of what Danko has said, Dylan wrote the lyrics, and both men wrote the chorus together. Although Danko has not said (at least as far as I know) it seems both from this report and from simply listening to this song and comparing it with Dylan written pieces, he wrote the chords and melody for the verse.
When I started this series of reviews, I wanted to put this right at the top of the list, the first song, but two things got in the way. First I couldn’t find the words to express what I wanted to say about this and second it is so untypical that it seemed the wrong place to start. So, some 85 reviews on I have the feeling maybe I can write something meaningful now.
The version I am referring to throughout is the Basement Tapes version recorded in 1967 and appearing in 1975. But by the time it came out what we knew (or at least those of us from the UK) was Julie Driscoll singing it with Brian Auger and The Trinity. It was not only a hit, it was a cultural classic of 1968. Indeed in many ways for some people it was 1968. There is also the later re-recorded version with of all people Ade Edmondson, the actor and husband of the wonderful Jennifer Saunders (although Ade Edmondson is wonderful too), which became the theme tune of Absolutely Fabulous – a stupendous hit of a TV show in the UK, largely because of the stunning script writing of Jennifer Saunders, perhaps the most talented comedy writer of the era.
But back to the music.
Two things shock and knock you out on hearing this original version. One is the sheer absolute power of that opening line “If your memory serves you well” – so powerful in fact that some people refer to the song by that line and mistake that for the song’s name.
And then there is that extraordinary chord change: Am to B diminished. Nowhere else in Dylan do you find this. In fact I can’t think where he uses a diminished chord at all other than here. The chord is removed in other versions, which is one reason why it is vital to return to this version of the song to hear it as created.
Indeed the chordal sequence is utterly unlike anything else in Dylan, alternating between A minor and C major. As for the delivery – ok the timing wanders a bit, but this was never meant to be a definitive recording. But who cares about timing, this track is utter perfection in terms of its expression of Dylan at his prime and pomp. For once every word is vital, important, all-powerful, demanding attention. No one can say “If your memory serves you well” in that way without grabbing you by the throat.
This is the height of the Songs of Disdain theme which in popular terms is highlighted by “Like a Rolling Stone”. Except, in this one case, Dylan is saying, “No you don’t, we are staying together, you don’t get away from me that easy”. This is Dylan knowing who he is, where he is, what he wants, and getting it all into one song.
If your memory serves you well we were going to meet again and wait
So I’m going to unpack all my things and sit before it gets too late
No man alive will come to you with another tale to tell
But you know that we shall meet again if your mem’ry serves you well
Now that you’ve met me there is no escape. OK you might not have waited, but that’s not a problem at all because you and I are bound totally in eternity to each other.
This wheel’s on fire
Rolling down the road
Best notify my next of kin
This wheel shall explode.
What imagery is this! What incredible feelings it brings forth. Dylan, the man who had walked away so often, whether it was on One Too Many Mornings, or It Ain’t Me Babe, is not walking this time, because this time the two lovers cannot be broken apart.
If your memory serves you well
I was going to confiscate your lace
And wrap it up in a sailor’s knot
And hide it in your case
If I knew for sure that it was yours
But it was oh so hard to tell
But you knew that we would meet again
If your memory serves you well
It is the power in that line repeated first and last that makes this so astoundingly overwhelming. The lace is the woman’s way of making herself appear more alluring, and here for a second we are almost back into the territory of Elvis Presley, Little Richard rock n roll songs where the woman is never trusted because she will go off with the next man who comes along with a faster car, smarter jacket…
Compare and contrast Wheels on Fire with something like “My Baby Left Me” to see the difference.
And that is the theme that takes us into the next verse. The singer says that the woman asked for the situation to be sorted, because she had failed to sort it herself.
But there is more – just listen to the singing, the way the words are pushed out so that no a single word or meaning is lost. Just listen to the opening of this verse – power pours out from it.
If your memory serves you well
You’ll remember you’re the one
OK could she forget? But now he’s spelling it out.
That called on me to call on them
To get you your favours done
And after every plan had failed
And there was nothing more to tell
You knew that we would meet again
If your memory served you well
He’s pulling her back in, and reminding her – I’ve done this for you, there’s no backing out now.
The wheel itself could be anything – himself (the singer), or his soul, his essence, his being…. all sorts of things. Everything. I think Robert Palmer hit it perfectly when he said, “Some have seen it as a piece of rock and roll burn-out bravura, others as a more spiritual declaration. Whatever, its power and immediacy render literal interpretations irrelevant.”
What we know from Danko’s testimony is that Dylan wrote the lyrics, and that the duo wrote the chorus together. Although Danko has not said (at least as far as I know) he wrote the chords and melody for the verse.
In the reviews one thing that comes up over and over again – the lyrics are chilling. And how this is true. If you had to struggle to understand each line that chillingness would be lost. But you don’t. They are clearer than anything since Freewheelin’.
In the end the song just goes around and around – you can hit repeat and apart from the slight change of tempo it is a perfect circle. Each verse could be placed anywhere. Probably the only thing you can compare this with is “All Along the Watchtower” which achieves the same effect although in a very different way but both have that continuity of expression which make them work.
“Watchtower” does it through repeating the chord sequence over and over, this song does it through the excellence of the production and the clarity of the voice. It is a deliberate rhythm which makes me feel that this is the voice that will take me through the burning when anyone who cares or cared turns up after my death to see me off.
But the key point here is that “All Along the Watchtower” and “Wheels of Fire” both speak of something that is not yet concluded – these are songs that are like pictures, capturing one moment in the drama. This is where the song is so different from (for example) “One too many mornings” or “Sooner or later one of us must know” which speak about it all being over. Here, it is far from over – indeed it has probably only just begun.