Abandoned Love (1975)
by Jochen Markhorst
It is a beautiful story, even though it is a true story. On a Thursday evening in July 1975, Dylan visits a performance by his old Greenwich Village buddy Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, playing in the famous nightclub The Bitter End (which is briefly called The Other End in those days) on Bleecker Street. Elliott spots him, starts playing “With God On Our Side” and asks after a few lines if Bob might want to assist him. Pleasantly surprised, the hundred-headed audience sees Dylan taking the stage, grabbing a guitar and playing along with “Pretty Boy Floyd” and “How Long Blues”.
He seems a little nervous, declines a first invitation to sing something, but then he exchanges his rattling guitar (he has troubles adjuisting the capo) with Ramblin’ Jack’s and then starts to sing. “After a couple of lines, we realized he was performing a new song,” eyewitness Joe Kivak writes, “with each line getting even better than the last. The song was Abandoned Love, and it still is the most powerful performance I’ve ever heard.”
Someone in the audience is so thoughtful as to make a sneaky recording that soon becomes extremely popular in bootleg circles, proving that Kivak hardly exaggerates; it is an enthusiastic, sparkling performance of an extremely beautiful song. It really must be the highlight of the upcoming LP.
A few weeks later, July 31, it is one of the last songs he records for that new LP, Desire, along with two other love songs: “Isis” and “Sara”. In terms of lyrics, hardly anything has changed, but the sparkle has disappeared. The melody is of course still enchanting, the accompaniment at the high Desire level, the production crisp (unfortunately including that dated bathroom reverbeo in vocals and percussion), but compared to the live recording, a mattness has crept in, Dylan sings perfunctively. He dismisses the recording, which will appear on Biograph ten years later, for Desire. Perhaps the master also misses the pearl gloss of the gig on 3 July, or maybe he thinks a song about the end of a Great Love should have been on predecessor Blood On The Tracks – or is the content too intimate? After that one time he will never play it again, in any case.
That intimacy then would concern the candor about the end of the marriage with Sara, which indeed fairly effortlessly can be distilled from the lyrics. In the first half of the 70s, Dylan serves his followers and fans with a-typical openness. Songs like “Wedding Song”, “Idiot Wind” and “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” are compared to earlier and later work remarkably undisguised, stripped of the usual misty ambiguity, and provide more than ever insight into the man’s soul stirrings. Grist to the mill of the exegetes with less cryptoanalytic talent, anyway.
“Abandoned Love” is a highlight in that subgenre. The underlying melancholy, regret, heartache and despair are clear, yet wrapped in Dylanesque metaphors and poetic emblems. The admiring witness of the first hour is right; already the first sentence is of great beauty. I can hear the turning of the key has a compelling rhythm, a strong evocative power and a catchy symbolic charge. And after this, sure enough, every line gets even better. The narrator does not spare himself; he is deceived by the clown in me, driven by misplaced vanity and now torn by the old and familiar conflict between head and heart. Sure, intellectually he understands it is over, but then: my heart is a-tellin ‘me I love ya still.
The biographical interpreter starts focusing the third time the protagonist professes his love in so many words: my heart is telling me I love ya but you’re strange. We now know that the I person is thematizing the abandonment of a Great Love, a Great Love with whom he also has children – yes, this is really inspired by the upcoming former Mrs. Dylan. Who is, it must be said now, perhaps a bit strange.
The observation does not stand alone. On comparing various Sara observations from different sources, one cannot escape the notion, besides all the respectful and affectionate descriptions: she indeed is a bit weird. Marianne Faithfull is not the only one who registers that she does not say much (in her highly humorous, touching and disconcerting autobiography from 1994) and describes her as solid as marble.
Levon Helm, the drummer of The Band, also senses something ethereal: a Brazilian Madonna (in his memoirs This Wheel’s On Fire). Sara connoisseur Joan Baez devotes quite a lot of words to her love rival in And A Voice To Sing With, and the sympathy that Baez seems to feel is predominant. Between the lines, however, she sprinkles asides and remarks that together do paint an image of quite a peculiar little lady. More than once Sara’s gaze is quizzical or surprised, often in combination with foggy. She is “too frail to be a mom,” “ill-equipped to handle the practical matters of everyday,” and Baez must help her with banal necessities such as finding towels and how to make coffee. However, Baez thinks Sara’s eccentric, poetic phobia is enviable: Sara is afraid to stand on a bridge over still water. It even animates Joan to a song about her (“Still Waters At Night”, on the disappointing Gulf Winds, 1976).
Likewise, in the Dylan songs in which Sara is sung, the bard always puts in a few words that suggest that his adored one can be somewhat detached or vulnerable. She is a Sphinx and hard to define (“Sara”), she apparently has no wishes, because she’s got everything she needs (“She Belongs To Me”), she is like some raven with a broken wing and speaks like silence (“Love Minus Zero / No Limit”), has a ghostlike soul and a face like glass (“Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”). In any case, Sara inspires Dylan to his most beautiful love songs, that much is clear. And the sideways remarked eccentricities all fit well with that one subclause after that declaration of love, I love ya but you’re strange.
However, the rejection of this little masterpiece may not be due to unease about the content. The text’s style is unsteady, and that may bother the poet Dylan. The text-internal tension between clear, classic lines of verse like Everybody’s wearing a disguise or clichéd pathos like The treasure can’t be found by men who search on the one hand and symbol-charged, ambiguous imagery like My patron saint is a-fighting with a ghost or the breathtaking power of Send out for St. John the Evangelist / All my friends are drunk, they can be dismissed (rejected lines from the first version) on the other hand, almost tangibly illustrates the crossroads on which the poet is now standing. It is a final eruption of the lucid poetry on Blood On The Tracks and a first glance at the heavy, hermetic lyricism of Street Legal.
After the release of that underwhelming studio recording from July ’75 on the sales success Biograph (1985), “Abandoned Love” also penetrates into the repertoire of eager colleagues. The Everly Brothers act fast (on Born Yesterday, 1985) with a rather corny, Celtic coloured version. It sounds more authentic with the full-blooded Irishman Séan Keane (All Heart No Roses, 1994), but the drabness is just as intolerable. The interpretation by Alistair Moock is already easier to digest, although his singing style pushes the song in the direction of “Streets Of London”. George Harrison changes the opening line for puzzling reasons into I can see the turning of the key, and delivers a beautifully arranged cover – but no; old George’s voice has never been wild or mercury, only thin, unfortunately. And the 80s sauce over the production does not do much good either. By the way, Harrison records it in the fall of 1984, well before Biograph‘s release; presumably his friend Dylan has pointed out to him the existence of the song.
The most beautiful covers are the various live versions from the Californian Chuck Prophet, the master guitarist and singer-songwriter who never really breaks through. Prophet produces distinctive, quirky Dylan covers (his “From A Buick 6” is a highlight), but refrains himself with “Abandoned Love”, in a faithful, loving, driving arrangement that, in part due to the guitar tsunami, towers high over the other covers.
Still, to the maestro’s embryonic, original pub recording from July ’75 no one comes close – not even Dylan himself.
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