By Jochen Markhorst
Bismarck, the capital of North Dakota.
On a freezing January afternoon in 1961, the then sixteen-year-old narrator walks back from school with his best friend and neighbour, Gene. They are overtaken by sirens and flashing lights, heading for Gene’s house. Shortly before that Gene’s father calmly and determined walked into the local Capitol, the parliament building, shot a popular senator, then walked away quietly, drove home and finally hung himself in the garage. Forty years later, the reason for this horror is still unknown and the narrator goes back in time to resolve that mystery from his youth.
That is the plot of Sundown, Yellow Moon (2007), the seventh novel by the American Larry Watson. It is a beautifully chosen title. After a few pages the many of Dylan’s fans who know “If You See Her, Say Hello” get the reference: after sundown, yellow moon Dylan sings I replay the past. Just like the novel’s narrator intends to do: to replay the past.
It is not a whodunnit, but a why-has-this-happened; just as the narrator in the elegant, gentle song does not question guilt, but is filled with blameless regret.
Watson’s novels are often visited by Dylan. In this novel at one other occasion, when the narrator remembers that he received a gift from a school friend at the time: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
In Laura (2000) Dylan plays softly on the stereo, in the short story Redemption he refers to “The Walls Of Red Wing” and the decors of his works are the late fifties, early sixties in North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin – Dylan country in Dylan time, so to speak.
Dylan will probably appreciate it. In addition, the cinephile Dylan will be pleased that the title of the song even inspires a film. If You See, Say Hello is a short, charming actor’s movie by Paul Purnell from 2010 for two players, with the title also being the main directional guide. A young woman and a young man are uncomfortably waiting in front of a closed breakfast cafe early in the morning. He wants to talk to her, but does not know how.
And the final scene of episode 5 from the first season is thanks to the song, one of the most beautiful scenes from the hit series Californication.
Leading actor Hank Moody (David Duchovny) walks on a languid, sunny afternoon with his teenage daughter and dog on the street, by the look of it in Venice, Los Angeles. Daughter experiences her first heartbreak and Moody’s first attempt, La Belle Dame Sans Merci from Keats, does not bring relief.
“Is that the best you can do, Dad? How about something from this century?”
That Hank can not offer, but there is something from the twentieth century. And with the intro of “If You See Her, Say Hello” swelling in the background, he starts to sing, to his daughter’s embarrassment . It is a beautiful, moving scene.
The song is one of the triggers to qualify Blood On The Tracks as Dylan’s “Divorce Album”, a genre designation which Dylan has always resisted. The song does indeed, elegantly and melancholy, say goodbye to a love, but the poet denies the connection with his own marital problems with Sara.
A stroll through his catalog admittedly confirms the counter argument that tender, graceful farewell songs are indeed a constant in Dylan’s repertoire. “Girl From The North Country” from 1963, “One Too Many Mornings” and “Mama, You Been On My Mind” in 1964, “Farewell, Angelina” and “Just Like A Woman” in ’65 and ’66, “I Threw It All Away”, “Going, Going, Gone”, ” Abandoned Love”, “We Better Talk This Over”, “Most Of The Time”… and that list continues well into the twenty-first century.
True, some songs have a bitter or venomous edge. Nevertheless: the theme of lost love inspired Dylan to a whole series of melancholy, poignant, poetic lyrics.
It also fits within the long and rich tradition of the American Songbook. Dylan listened a lot in those days, as he says, to Joni Mitchell’s Blue, but undoubtedly Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning (1955) revolves on the turntable, too.
“Glad To Be Unhappy”, “I Get Along Without You Very Well”, the title song, “When Your Lover Has Gone”; all songs in the same mood, songs that Dylan will honour on his ‘Sinatra albums’ in the twenty-first century. “These Foolish Things”, “Once Upon A Time”, “Somewhere Along The Way”, just to name a few – Dylan does have a faible for those gentle songs filled with resigned tristesse.
Within that category “If You Say Her, Say Hello” is an exceptionally successful example. Those songs from the American Songbook are beautiful, but lyrically generally rather one-dimensional. Through a series of similar images or lamentations, one less colourful than the other, the narrator contemplates a lost love.
The level that the poet Dylan adds to the emotional charge is heartbreaking in all its modesty. Through the absence and the resignation, pain (it pierced me through the heart, for example), remorse (the bitter taste still lingers on) and self-criticism (the way I tried to make her stay) flare up, and thus the poet paints a much richer, multi-faceted, a more moving portrait of the abandoned lover than the overwhelming majority of those farewell songs do.
Mastery is also evident from the harrowing, seemingly inadvertent insertions that manage to express man’s loneliness: “She now lives Tangier, I hear” and from the sad humility with which he indirectly wraps his hopeless desire for reunification. “Tell her she can look me up, if she’s got the time“, don’t tell her I still think of her.
The poetic form enforces the strength. “If You Say Her, Say Hello” has no chorus, no refrain, no strict metre – it escapes Dylan’s normal conventions for song lyrics and differs from the other songs on the album. It is rather similar to classical poetry, to Great Poets singing a lost love. Petrarch’s Sonnets for Laura, Goethe’s Marienbader Elegie, Shakespeare, though less majestic.
The location on the album is also right on target. Of course, a song this strong can stand alone, but here, between the hectic, epic “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts” and the marble, grand masterpiece “Shelter From The Storm”, the song gets a calming, intimate added value that makes it all the more piercing.
Dylan has given an unusual amount of love to the final recording. It is one of the five songs he re-records in Minnesota at the end of 1974, during the Christmas holidays.
The dazzling, austere version from New York is discarded at the urging of brother David and the song gets dressed up more exuberantly. The lyric changes, stripped of the sharpest edges, make the mild resignation predominant. Musically it now has a beautiful, Mediterranean intro, a slow full-bodied arrangement and a subtle acceleration, making the song seem to work towards a climax. The recording is even edited with a few overdubs, equally unusual with Dylan. Some mystification in that area does, however, colour the reports about the sessions. Mandolin player Peter Ostroushko would not have been able to play the ‘butterfly part’, the second mandolin part in the high register at the end of song. Uncut even reports that ‘Ostroushko refused to play so high on the neck, because those notes do not come through well. Subsequently Dylan is said to have taken the mandolin, handling it perfectly.
That is a somewhat too dramatic representation of things, but not completely out of order. A first witness, session player Kevin Odegard, is more reliable and reports in his insightful co-production with Andy Gill A Simple Twist Of Fate: Bob Dylan And The Making Of Blood On The Tracks (2004) that Ostroushko ‘for whatever reason’ had his doubts about Dylan’s wish to also play the same part one octave higher:
Bob just let it drop, then borrowed the instrument and did it himself. “Nevertheless,” Paul Martinson confirms, “Peter’s mandolin part is still in there, back in the mix.” (The next morning, Ostroushko called his pal Jim Tordoff to tell him all about the “strange dream” he’d had the night before. Tordoff, who had driven Ostroushko from the 400 Bar to the session, cut him off midsentence: “No, Peter, it really happened!”)
Incidentally, Peter Ostroushko is a very fine musician, a master on violin, guitar and mandolin on his many solo and duo albums, typically infectious combinations of traditional folk, Eastern European folk music, bluegrass and country.
In later versions Dylan adds yet again sharper, bitter verse fragments. If she’s passin’ back this way, most likely I’ll be gone / But if I’m not just let her know it’s best she stays gone, for example, and a more sinister variant like If you make love to her, watch it from the rear / You’ll never know when I’ll be back, or liable to appear – biting, vicious lines of verse in which we can hear flashes of the old, mean Dylan from the mid-sixties again.
However, the resigned Blood On The Tracks version from Minneapolis remains the standard, also for the many admiring fellow artists who have a go at a cover. Except for the late lamented Jeff Buckley, who sings the New York version on a chilling, lonely, ethereal bootleg recording of a studio session from 1993. Live At Sin-é (2003) is really beautiful, too.
Mary Lee’s Corvette, obviously, perform the song near-perfectly on the complete cover album Blood On The Tracks, 2002, with a surprisingly false slip on though things get kind of slow.
The Australian Ross Wilson approaches Dylan’s perfection with a driving, crackling version that comes close to the wild mercury sound, thanks to the organ (on an Australian tribute album, The Woodstock Sessions, 2000).
One of the most beautiful covers is selected by the master himself, for the film Masked And Anonymous (2003) and is the Italian version by the Roman ‘Prince of singer-songwriters’ Francesco de Gregori, who also receives an honourable mention in the liner notes: “the legend of Italian pop music”.
The contribution to the soundtrack is actually rather small. Over the scene in which Jack Fate arrives by bus at his hotel, we hear, roughly glued together, the first forty and the last fifteen seconds. But it encourages Francesco to sing a whole album full of Dylancovers in 2015: De Gregori Canta Bob Dylan, with fairly safe, but above all wonderful adaptations. Translations actually rarely work with Dylan songs, but in Italian everything sounds better, of course. The translation also smoothes the last sharp edges. The pierced heart has been replaced by the sentimental even though she is no longer here, she is still in my heart and the bitter taste of the night she left is completely ignored; in that place De Gregori now generously sings that he will not come between her and her new lover.
The Italian turns the yellow moon into an old familiar ‘luna blu’, a blue moon, and presumably for rhyme technical reasons the lady has to move house once again; she no longer lives in Tangier, but further away, in Tunisia. Se la vedi dille ciao, salutala ovunque sia / E partita tempo fa, e adesso forse e in Tunisia. Carthage then presumably, where those Romans are not very welcome anymore. Even the title changes, to don’t tell her it isn’t so – “Non Dirle Che Non È Così”. Seems somewhat less catchy than “Se La Vedi, Dille Ciao”, but the flair for language of il principe dei cantautori is undoubtedly effective.
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