True Love Tends to Forget: Bob Dylan from here to here

Jochen Markhorst

There are many reasons why we regret the premature death of Otis Redding, and “True Love Tends To Forget” is one of them. It’s not difficult to dream away in a fantasy how Otis would have handled this beautiful soul ballad. After all, Dylan already chooses a soul arrangement on Street Legal, with a Steve Cropper-like guitar in the opening, Stax horns, Booker T.’s organ and a ladies’ choir.

That is no coincidence; his admiration for Otis is well known. In his radio program Theme Time Radio Hour he likes to play Otis’ heartbreaking classics (including “Cigarettes And Coffee” and “I’ve Got Dreams To Remember”) and already in April 1966 Dylan is said to have offered him “Just Like A Woman”. The master may well have thought of Otis while writing these lyrics. According to some sources Otis dismissed “Just Like A Woman” because the lyrics were too wordy – too many syllables to be able to squeeze in those typical, yearning and grinding Otis outbursts.

Robbie Robertson, not always a reliable eyewitness, tells how he and Dylan are talking about cover versions of Dylan’s songs, back in ’66 in the studio, when Dylan asks who could sing “Just Like A Woman”.

“Otis Redding, of course,” Robbie answers, and the managers then get in touch. Years later Robertson happens to meet Otis’ manager Phil Walden and he can ask why that cover never was released. Otis has indeed recorded the song, Walden says, but was never capable of singing that bridge – “In the bridge, the words are about amphetamines and pearls, and he couldn’t get those words to come out of his mouth in a truthful way. So, we had to put it aside.” Which Robertson can respect: “If you can’t sing something with a complete honesty, then you shouldn’t be singing that thing. And he was just being honest about it.”

Dylan himself remembers the details somewhat differently, incidentally. In the interview with Wenner (Playboy, 1969) he states that Otis asked him for a song, at a meeting at the Whiskey A Gog Go, in 1966. “Well I didn’t necessarily think it was a good song for him to do, but he asked me if I had any material. It just so happened that I had the dubs from my new album.

True Love does not suffer from textual excess, at any rate. Around it there are alphabetical processions to be found, like “Where Are You Tonight?” And “No Time To Think”, but this song is relatively straightforward, does not shy away from the clichés and is economical in terms of Dylanesque outliers. “Weekend in hell” is probably inspired by Rimbaud’s Une Saison En Enfer, a few far-fetched rhyme findings (roulette-forget, any oxygenamong the men), but otherwise there is hardly an indication that this is a Dylan original.

Well, that “from Mexico to Tibet” is still a thing. Dylan likes to resort to topographic metaphors to express “very far” or “here, there and everywhere”, and starts to carry on a bit too far in that respect. Initially, almost twenty years ago, he thinks from Washington Heights to Brooklyn is far enough (an hour’s walk, in “Hard Times In New York City”), in “Down The Highway” he already needs just under 3000 miles, from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Statue of Liberty, and its well-known simplification (from the west unto the east) is used in “I Shall Be Released”.

In the 1970s, the search for more original variants starts. From the heavens to the ground in “Never Say Goodbye”, from the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol in “Idiot Wind” and now from Mexico to Tibet – almost 9000 miles.

In “Slow Train Coming” the poet downgrades a bit (from Amsterdam to Paris), but in the different versions of “Carribean Wind” he strikes again; first the wind blows from Mexico to Curaçao, changes to from Tokyo to the British Isles and when the song is stranded, it is from Nassau to Mexico, still over 1200 miles. In “Union Sundown” Dylan then reaches the superlative level: from Broadway to the Milky Way, although a less poetically minded listener will argue that this is actually “from here to here” – our earth is part of the Milky Way galaxy, after all.

This tenacious preference for the topographic metaphor is not very defensible. In more than half of the cases, like here, it is rather forced and adds nothing. From New Orleans to Jerusalem in “Blind Willie McTell” provides an extra layer, but that added value is exceptional. The bard seems to realize that too. After 1983, he no longer uses this figure of speech, except in “Roll On John” (2012). And there it is also serving and thematically fitting: Lennon’s light shines from the Liverpool docks to the red light Hamburg streets.

The beauty of the bridge, of the middle eight, stands out on three fronts; it is a poetic highlight, vocally line three offers a rhythmic find (“Saw you drift into infinity and come back again”) which Dylan quite rightly appreciates, as evidenced by the flashing passion with which he sings in the live performances, and musically it flows so nice, that Dylan plays it once more. Mind you, this comes from a master who used to have little appreciation for something as banal as a bridge. Not until “Ballad Of A Thin Man” we see a first step, a real, conventional middle eight debuts in “Memphis Blues Again”.

Meanwhile, “True Love Tends To Forget”, just like almost every Street Legal song, is in a verge corner of Dylan’s catalogue. It is not a lonely place, back there, but unjust, or at least incomprehensible, it is. Songs like “Down The Highway” and “North Country Blues” are also there, and with that you can be at peace – much more than a temporary charm they do not have.

Songs like “Baby Stop Crying”, “We Better Talk This Over” and this “True Love Tends To Forget”, however, possess a timeless power, but somehow do not seem to convince the top floor. For a while, recognition for “True Love Tends To Forget” is imminent, as it is being nominated for Greatest Hits Vol. 3. The – staggering juvenile – liner notes have already been written (the mere mentioning of Tibet inspires Oxford’s poetry professor Sir Christopher Ricks to the saltless wordplay “Dylai Lama”), but eventually it is bypassed, along with the equally soulful “Tight Connection To Your Heart”, in favour of “Series Of Dreams” and “Changing Of The Guards”. Dylan does not play the song live after 1978 and noteworthy covers are not recorded either; this jewel truly is a lost gem.

And also….

True love tends to forget: Dylan laughs at himself from Mexico to Tibet

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  1. Another excellent review, Jochen!

    With regards to “Mexico to Tibet”, I see what you mean by the other references (“from the Grand Coulee Dam,” etc), but I tend to group “Mexico to Tibet” with “New Orleans to Jerusalem” because I see them not just as geographical distances, but also huge cultural shifts. Some of them, he’s just talking about distance, but with these, I think he’s going elsewhere, kind of like Leonard Cohen’s contrast in “Everybody Knows” – “From the bloody cross on top of Calvary to the beach of Malibu”, a contrast in places, indeed!

    I like too how you point out the third line in the bridge – I’d never noticed that rhythm, and I suppose now I’ll find it harder to un-notice it.

    I like your reviews because you write with great knowledge and depth, you don’t just choose random references and lump them together illogically. Also, you gave this song a great review, and lately I’m on a Street Legal binge, as well as the Rundown Rehearsals, and I think 1978 is a much neglected and misunderstood year of Dylan’s creativity. I think he was alive then, in an electrifying way, and a case could be made for Street Legal being his best album of the seventies – but that’s a different topic.

  2. Thanks Kieran,
    You’re probably right in ranking that particular metaphor as an attempt to express ‘huge cultural shift’. But then again: in this context (Don’t forsake me, baby, don’t sell me out / Don’t keep me knockin’ about from Mexico to Tibet) it is still rather alienating – I guess I am missing a point.

    I do share your admiration for Street Legal. I love that record since I bought the cassette (!) in 1978. This review is my third expedition in search of the recognition for the album as the masterpiece it is. The struggle may be ridiculed and gets somewhat lonely sometimes, but it is a just cause. And we will continue until Street Legalgets its own Bootleg Series! (Okay, I exaggerate. But note the serious undertone)

    Groeten uit Utrecht,

  3. Hi Jochen,

    I suppose I’m thinking simplistically but Mexico and Tibet are two really different types of places, and although Bob prolly uses convenient rhymes (and maybe then fits the logic?), I kinda felt from the line that he was describing two different worlds – religiously, culturally and climate-wise – for him to be lost in, “knockin’ about.” But maybe I’m reaching! Anyway, I tended to group that line with the “New Orleans-Jerusalem” one, but hadn’t really thought much of the other ones. Now, thanks to you, I will.

    My Street Legal is still the cassette! But I was able to run it through a filter to get it onto a CD. They tampered with this great record in 2001-ish, and ruined it, imho. They reckoned the production wasn’t up to scratch. Well, guess what – the re-do added an instrumental verse to Changing of the Guard, I’m presuming because they must have thought Bob couldn’t count, or something.

    It’s hideous, as was the whole sterilising of that record of its live, “muddy” sound, which was good enough for me, I reckon. I love everything about it – okay, there’s the “cook and sew” thing, but I don’t lose too much sleep over that. Musically the record is very expressive, it has the girls, great sax and guitar solos, and Bob sounding lusty and engaged. Oh, and gems like True Love, New Pony, Baby Stop Crying, as well as at least 3 Big Songs. And the rest of it.

    I’d love a Bootleg Series set on Street Legal era, though I think there maybe few worthwhile studio takes, but there’s enough interesting stuff on the Rundown rehearsals…

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