One More Cup Of Coffee: to the valley below

One More Cup Of Coffee (1976)

by Jochen Markhorst

Desire is a key word in Bizet’s masterpiece, the opera Carmen (1875). The pitiful Don José endured the shame and inconvenience of the prison thanks to the flower Carmen had thrown at him, dry and withered in his breast pocket, and when he smells it, he only feelsone desire:

jene sentais qu’un seul désir,

unseul désir, un seul espoir:

te revoir, ô Carmen, oui, te revoir!

…one single desire and one single hope; that he will see Carmen again. The outcome is known. After Carmen definitively dismisses him, the distraught José stabs her and immediately afterwards breaks down, sobbing over her lifeless body.

It looks as if the character of Carmen was the model for the adored one in “One More Cup Of Coffee”. The narrator sings a likewise unfaithful, hard-hearted, hedonistic gypsy who, like Carmen, practices fortune-telling, can sing beautifully and has a black heart.

For the description of her beauty, however, the poet Dylan is not inspired by Bizet, but apparently by Solomon, by the Song of Songs. The song is, like for example “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”, set up like a medieval blason, the poetic form in which the poet, like Solomon in the Song of Songs, systematically checks off the physical characteristics of the adored – in pulsating, vibrating metaphors, of course.

Form and rhythm the poet copies fairly precisely; praises like

thy thighs are like jewels

and

thy belly is like a heap of wheat

or

thine head upon thee is like Carmel, and the hair of thine like purple

are all quite easily exchangeable for that amorous flattery in Dylan’sfirst verse:

Your breath is sweet

Your eyes are like two jewels in the sky

Your back is straight and your hair is smooth

…but in terms of content it appears that the trends have changed, in the course of three thousand years. Solomon apparently finds it very complimentary to compare the hairdo of his lover with ‘a herd of goats‘ and her eyes with the ‘fishponds in Hesbon‘, for example. Indeed, the times they are a-changin’.

Goingthrough the Songof Songs, there are more hints to be found that this Bible book is under Dylan’s skin. ‘I am sick of love‘ is literally there (5:6), the same words as in “Love Sick”.Cometh up from the wilderness (8:5), echoes in “Shelter From The Storm”, the rose of Sharon in “Caribbean Wind” and for “Someone’s Got A Hold Of My Heart” Dylan picks an identical lily among the thorns from Song of Songs 2:2.

But after the first four lines with Song of Solomonistic coaxing, the poet Dylan takes a different turn from Solomon, and starts to cut up the exotic Venus: despite all outer beauty she is a loveless, ungrateful creature.

Dylan reveals the inspiration for the rest of the lyrics during the concerts between 14 November and 16 December 1978 and also in interviews (with Paul Zollo, SongTalk, 1991, with Shelton in ’78, Jonathan Cott in ’77 and in Australia with Karen Hughes in ’78).

The heart is a visit to a gypsy king in southern France. That story tells Dylan twenty-two times on the stage and seems to be rather romanticized, but in the core it probably is historically correct.  Every year in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer a religious pilgrimage for gypsies takes place, which Dylan visited on his thirty-fourth birthday, together with his host David Oppenheim, the painter. Dylan wraps his memories of that visit in picturesque, sheer cinematic terms:

“A few years ago I went over the South of France when the gypsies have their festival. It happens to be their high holy holiday, like Christmas time. Anyway, that particular day happens to be the day I was born on. It’s my birthday also. I’d heard about that for years and I went over to check it out. Just like that, I did.

“So I arrived, over a town on the ocean, in the south of France. And all the gypsies were there. They were there from Hungary, Romania, France, England, Germany, all them countries. Just all along the beach. What they do for their holiday is just party for a week. So, I managed to meet the king of the gypsies over there. I don’t know how old he was, he was wearing a derby hat when I met him. He had 16 wives and 125 children.  And I was very impressed of that.

“Anyway, I stayed around and partied for a week, I didn’t sleep, did everything there was to do at least twice. And when it was time to leave he said, “What you want, Bob, now when our ways are gonna part?” All I needed was just to stay up one more day, just to get back to the North of France, so I asked for just please give me one more cup of coffee for the road. So they give it to me in a bag, I took it and headed off down.”

Dylan tells this story in slightly different versions. Sometimes with details that add to the unbelievability (such as his remembrance that he is near the ocean and looks out over a large valley – in the Camargue there is neither an ocean nor there are ‘large wide valleys’), but the story makes clear which feelings Dylan himself has about “One More Cup Of Coffee”: foreign, displaced, lost.  Of “Isis” it reminds anyway, but perhaps even more of “Señor”, which during these days also invariably is introduced with a similarly bizarre, fierce, exurbant story.

Thus, the poet has given the chorus an autobiographical basis. However, in the interview with Paul Zollo, thirteen years after these stage talks, he wipes it off the table again. Those days in southern France have “probably influenced the writing of that song”, but

TheValley Below probably came from someplace else. My feeling about the song was that the verses came from someplace else. It wasn’t about anything, so this ‘valley below’ thing became the fixture to hang it on. But ‘valley below’ could mean anything.”

Right. Solomon seems to mean the female pubic area. But even the less Bible versed will probably have a more sinister association with valley: Psalm 23:4, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, the Psalm that Dylan will also paraphrase in the unified effort withU2, “Love Rescue Me” (1987). Or, even worse, the Valley of Hinnom, Gehenna, the valley in which at the time of Solomon an eternal fire was kept burning and in which children were sacrificed to Moloch – the valley that was also called the valley below Jerusalem.

Ultimately,however, this word combination most likely entered the mind of a song and dance man like Dylan via one of the many, many songs in which a valley below is sung. The ancient, popular folksong “Early In The Morning”, for example (Early one morning / Just as the sun was rising / I heard a young maid sing/ In the valley below), that in the 60s in Bonanza alone is sung three times. Or via Dottie Rambo’s gospel classic “(In The Valley) He Restoreth My Soul”.

Buffy Sainte Marie’s “The Piney Wood Hills”, Dave Dudley’s “Silver Rails” (whose”Coffee, Coffee, Coffee” should be in Dylan’s record case too), “Watching The Apples Grow” by Stan Rogers, Connie Smith’s top hit “Cincinatti Ohio”… well, on every shelf in Dylan’s vast record collection there are undoubtely about five, six valleys below.

The same applies to that cup of coffee. Radio maker Dylan devotes an entire episode of Theme Time Radio Hour to coffee (season 1, episode 5, Coffee), in which he plays fifteen songs with coffee-drinking protagonists, but not the song that is closest to him: “I’ll Just Have A Cup Of Coffee (Then I’ll Go)” by Claude Gray from 1960.

The outlandish connotation of the couplets also colours Dylan’s recitation. The singer chooses Oriental-style decorations that are reminiscent of a muezzin rather than gypsy music, but it is effective; it accentuates the song’s exotic, atypical colour. The same mystical splendour has the goose bumps-inducing intro, which according to bassist Rob Stoner spontaneously originated from discomfort: “That wasn’t arranged for me to do a bass solo. Scarlet wasn’t ready.  Bob starts strumming his guitar – nothing’s happening. Somebody better play something, so I start playin’ a bass solo” (Mojo, October 2012).

But the driving force of the song is the couplets’ slow, inevitable downfall. “If you ever want to write a hit, don’t feel ashamed, do a descending bass line,”as Sir Paul McCartney teaches.

The song’s popularity with colleagues is understandable. Many copy the exotic atmosphere. Frazey Ford, for example, and Calexico with RogerMcGuinn. Robert Plant lays down a base of tabla-like percussion, lets the acoustic guitar play arabesques and underneath a slightly neurotic synthesizer doodles flute tones. As if the Gypsy Kings are playing “Tomorrow Never Knows”, but the cover nevertheless has a special charm (Dreamland,2002).

The best-known cover is the barren, deforested, driving version of The White Stripes on their eponymous 1999 debut album, and turns into a rock song. In this category, Nutz, a forgotten band from Liverpool, has a more traditional approach; their version is a dramatic, muscular, firm stadium rocker and enjoyable still (HardNutz,1977).

The most beautiful interpretation is from the Texan axe shredder Chris Duarte, who manages to unite all the beauties of both the original and the best covers in a sultry, hypnotic, austere masterpiece (Romp,2012). Carmen, Solomon and the gypsy king are dead, but Stevie RayVaughan is still alive. Especially on Duarte’s live recordings.

Claude Gray:

Nutz:

Chris Duarte:

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3 Responses to One More Cup Of Coffee: to the valley below

  1. LarryFyffe says:

    Yes, and compare Claude Gray’s ‘Nashville Sound’ with Jim Reeves’ ‘Put Your Sweet Lips Closer To The Phone’.

  2. Christina Vanderhaeghe says:

    Saintes Marie de la MER, the whole region is a great valley, The Camargue. The River the Rhône is meandering to the Mediterean Sea.

  3. Jochen says:

    Thanks for your reaction, Christina, and your addendum.
    However, I fear that either you are missing a point or that I have expressed myself unclearly (the latter is more likely).
    My point is that the poet Dylan does not put to music an encrypted, poetic record of a recent holiday experience. I believe we are wronging the artist with such strict autobiographical interpretations.

    I think the introductory stage talks do illustrate that. Dylan is not talking about – for example – a dune on which he stands while looking out over the sea (Saintes Marie de la Mer is located by the sea, after all, it is not called Saintes-Marie-sur-l’Océan), neither does he mention another actual view from there, one of those, in the summer rather smelly, étangs over there, but he sketches a rather romantic image about an ‘ocean’ and ‘wide valleys’ and an abandoned gypsy king with bowler hat.

    With some good will one could refer to The Camargue as ‘a great valley’, I suppose, but I think it is rather unlikely that the poet refers to this macro-geological fact – I’d say he appeals more to an old, classical image that is in our collective memory; that of the lonely traveler who looks out from a mountain height over his destination, some deep valley below him. Say Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer from Caspar David Friedrich, or Joshua looking out over the Valley of Hinnom, or dozens of cliché images from Westerns – the kind of valleys, anyway, that are certainly not to be found in the relatively flat lowlands of the Camargue.

    Apparently, those stage talks, just like those outrageous introductions to “Señor”, are meant to contribute to the image that the romantic Dylan wants to evoke with his song.

    Perhaps unnecessarily: I am certainly not looking for ‘mistakes’ in the work of our hero. I do, however, oppose the rather one-dimensional interpretation attempts that we encounter a lot, the quite tiresome interpretation attempts that try to unravel which autobiographical facts Dylan would be hiding behind encoded imagery, behind his ‘new poetic expressions’.
    I think Dylan’s art is a lot more richer than that.

    Groeten uit Utrecht,
    Jochen

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