By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
‘Rosemary combed her hair and took a cabbage into town’
No. She didn’t. She took a carriage into town, but it’s easy enough to mishear Dylan. He has a way of bending words, and while he can articulate with great clarity, he can also gulp a syllable or three, or rush words to fit into the musical line or with delayed vocal timing. He can stretch or compress words as desired. Whatever the reason, mishearing Dylan goes with the territory, and the results can be amusing, and occasionally illuminating.
Some mishearings are simply silly, as with Rosemary and her cabbage from the song Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, but at best mishearing can initiate a creative engagement with the text, involving backtracking and rediscovering what he really sang. There is a certain constructedness in a Dylan song, especially evident in those he keeps reconstructing in performance, and by listening we enter, to some extent, into the creative process. Dylan encourages this creative engagement by an elusive sketchiness in terms of narrative and character creation which leaves us lots of room for our imaginations, and to find our song within Dylan’s.
In describing what they term ‘critical deformance’, which involved putting a poem through particular procedures such as reading it backwards, reversing lines, changing the order of verses etc, authors Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels comment: ‘In this perspective, the critical and interpretive question is not “what does the poem mean?” but “how do we release or expose the poem’s possibilities of meaning?”’
Mishearing is not exactly a deformance in the sense intended by McGann and Samuels, which involves a systematic changing of the text. However, arguably, mishearing is an aural deformation of a more accidental nature, but which just might release or expose the song’s possibilities of meaning.
It might also expose something else, what our mishearing’s tell us about ourselves and what we are looking for in a Dylan song:
The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense ‘Take what you have gathered from cold winds so dense.’
No! He doesn’t sing that, but that’s how I heard it for many years, making four words out of one, and when I finally saw the lyrics, I felt sort of disappointed, let down. My ‘cold winds so dense’ conjoured, for me, the lonely back roads of Jack Keroack’s ‘On The Road’ which I was reading at the time. The lonely back roads are the ‘highway’ we find in the previous line, with the kind of wind that was blowing when Dylan and Suzie Rotolo had their photo taken for the cover of Freewheelin’ on a freezing New York day. But what he really sang was, ‘take what you have gathered from coincidence.’
Once discovered, my mistake made me reflect on Dylan’s word choice. ‘Coincidence’ suggests a meaningless, absurd world where significance might only be found, if at all, in the collision of random, chance events. It takes us deeper into the world of illogic than my mishearing, but still… the existential shiver is the same, so my mishearing was in keeping with the song’s affective centre. Or so I like to think.
In any case, it gives us a good excuse to revisit this 1965 BBC live version in which Dylan makes quite a meal out the word ‘coincidence’ – I’m sure if you listen hard enough you’ll hear those cold winds so dense
It’s worthwhile noting that when we first began listening to Dylan albums back in the 1960s we had no way of independently verifying the lyrics. There was no internet, no official lyrics, the first book of Dylan lyrics did not come out until later.
To compound the problem, Dylan was singing words we’d never heard sung before, as they did not belong to the lexicon of pop music. Words like ‘museum’, ‘infinity’, ‘amphetamine’ and, well, ‘coincidence.’
Furthermore, they were often in unexpected combinations equally unfamiliar to our ears. We had to argue it out, and of course listen to the songs over and over. Did he really sing ‘The darkness at the break of noon shadows even the silver spoon’? These were far cry from Ricky Nelson or Bobby Darin lyrics. We hardly knew what we were hearing, nor how to make sense of it.
Add to all that, being poor students, we were spinning our precious mono vinyl on shitty old turntables, with platinum needles that hadn’t been changed since Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel, gutless amplifiers and crappy old speakers. It’s a wonder we could hear anything.
I can’t help wondering if Dylan kind of intended this. We quickly moved into an age when lyrics printed on sleeves and slipped into the ablums was all the rage, but, to my knowledge, Dylan only ever did this for Street Legal (1978) and Empire Burlesque (1985). Maybe he wanted us to struggle to get the words, wanted us to listen over and over. Maybe he knew that the lyrics sounded a lot better and more mysterious in performance than on the printed page…
‘Ever since you walked right in the circus been complete I say good bye to haunted rooms and faces in the street.’
No. ‘…the circle’s been complete,’ is what he sings. But ‘circus’ worked just fine for me, while it lasted. It look me back to Desolation Row, when the circus came to town (those haunted rooms where they nail curtains), and it seemed fitting that, from the persective of the early 1970’s, the arrival of true love should complete the 60’s circus.
I was onto something, I thought; except I wasn’t. At first I was disappointed, again, until I thought of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Circle Game’, and in that light Dylan’s ‘Wedding Song’ engages in a neat bit of intertextuality.
This is not the only circle I turned into a circus. I made the same mistake with Carribean Wind.
‘From the circus (of) ice to the furnace of desire.’
No. It’s ‘circle of ice,’ but I was seeing circuses everywhere. And circles too. Just to add to the fun, we have ‘circled by the circus sands’ in Mr Tambourine Man.
‘Misty Liar is his, a Philistine is what she is
She’ll do wonders and work with your fate
Feed you coconut bread, spice buns in bed
If you don’t mind sleepin’ with your head face down in the plate.’
No! He doesn’t sing that, although I keep hearing it. In this case, several creative mishearings over four lines leads to a creative misinterpretation. Let’s look at what he really sings:
Miss Delilah is his, a Philistine is what she is She'll do wondrous works with your fate Feed you coconut bread, spice buns in your bed If you don't mind sleepin' with your head face down in a grave.
I constructed a woman quite different from Dylan’s. Misty Liar is the hippy chick who might tell fortunes, play the earth mother with her coconut bread. She’s happy enough to take you to bed, if you don’t mind passing out in her lap.
Dylan’s Miss Delilah is much darker, more sinister figure. She comes out of the Bible, a woman who sold out a man (only later was she seen as arch temptress), and to sleep with her you have to lie down in a grave. That might be your grave. Might be hers. A big price to pay for those spice buns. Both ‘plate’ and ‘grave’ might work as a sexual reference, but Dylan’s brings death onto the scene. I have to let go my playful ‘plate’ now for the real thing, and in the process lose that neat rhyme!
I got into trouble at the end of this song, too:
‘Did he make it to the top, well he probably didn’t drop Struck down by the strength of the will..
No. That doesn’t really make sense. If he didn’t drop how come he was struck down? It all made sense when I read the actual lyrics. No disappointment this time.
‘Did he make it to the top, well he probably did, and dropped Struck down by the strength of the will…’
Yes, even Jesus suffered from that old ‘foot of pride.’ In this case my mishearing did not enrich my understanding of the song, just confused me.
I’m not a great fan of Dylan covers, nobody sings Dylan like Dylan, but in the spirit of fun, I couldn’t resist this gutsy version of Foot of Pride by Dirty Ray, described by the uploader as a “blues hack” based in Minneapolis. He’s caught the angry edge of the song, and roughed it up. The fun part is that Dylan’s enunciation is model of clarity compared to Dirty Ray’s weird word bending. If you don’t already know the words, good luck, now you know how it feels…
They'll stone you when you're tryin' to make a fuck They'll stone you and then they'll say "good luck"
No! This was a wilful mishearing, because I knew perfectly well that Dylan doesn’t use profanities. ‘They’ll stone you when you’re trying to make a buck,’ works just fine, but, I swear the way he sings it, with that leering implication he’s so good at, it sounds like he’s singing ‘fuck’ instead of ‘buck’, as if he wants us to mishear it. After all, it would be in perfect keeping with the wild, anarchic, irreverent tone of the song. So, I close and my eyes and hear what I want to hear.
Now he looked so immaculately frightful as he bummed a cigarette And he went off sniffing dreampipes and reciting the alphabet
No. I was thrown when I read that what he really sang was, ‘And he went off sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet.’ Dreampipes made sense to me at the age of sixteen. A pipe filled with nice dreamy stuff (nod-wink), like the pipe offered to the singer in ‘Tangled up in Blue’. It was fitting. But drainpipes? That’s toxic. That’s very unromantic. It changes the whole feeling of the sketch presented to us. It’s so much stronger than my predictable ‘dreampipes’ that I want to run away and hide. And I loved that song for so long mishearing that line.
‘You can hear empires spin…’
No! A wonderful mishearing as it ties in with the broader focus of the album, Infidels, and songs like ‘Man of Peace’ and ‘Union Sundown.’ But what he really sings is ‘You can hear them tyres spin.’ Again I’m humbled. That’s much more dramtic and concrete than my ‘empires’.
That’s just a sample. I keep discovering new mishearings. Even while writing this blog I read that the end of ‘Can’t Wait’ reads:
‘I thought somehow that I would be spared this day’
and I’ve never heard that. I hear:
‘I thought somehow I would be spared this fate.’
I’m convinced enough that I’m hearing correctly to become suspicious of the official lyrics… Play it again Joe, let’s hear what he really sings. Here is the famous 2011 Milan version. Although I think there are better versions, Dylan is obviously having fun hamming this one up. Looks like he wants to laugh. And, I’ll eat my hat if he doesn’t sing ‘fate’ and not ‘day.’
Let us know your favourite mishearings, and how you felt when you found out the actual lyrics.
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Stoic but affirmations filled. It’s all right ma. Flat nasal delivery vesus open throated howling. They both work for me, tho the 1974 version is more cathartic
Dancing to dylan.
Bob Dylan and the underworld: in the land of shady deals, the scent of corruption
Carribean wind, where are you tonght, cry awhile, when the deal goes down, foot of pride, sweetheart like you, the slease bar