Mishearing Dylan: Did he really sing that?

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.’

(It’s All Over Now Baby Blue)

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.’

(Wedding Song)

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.’

(Foot of Pride)

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

(Desolation Row)

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…’

(What’s a sweeheart like you)

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.

What else is on the site

You’ll find an index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

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We also have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes:

 

 

New Post idea> Dylan scolarship  in the Age of Climate change: A guilty pleasure.

 

Catharsis

 

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

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33 Responses to Mishearing Dylan: Did he really sing that?

  1. LarryFyffe says:

    Very funny article!

    No you did not get mashed potato stuck in your ears when you fell asleep in your dinner! ‘fate’ rhymes with ‘wait’ and there’s a written lyrics site that gives ‘fate’ while another site gives ‘day’.

  2. Morten Jonsson says:

    A fun topic. Thank you. Trying to understand what Dylan is singing is as hopeless sometimes as reading Shakespeare’s handwriting must have been, and even the “official” lyrics are as full of mistakes as the First Folio: hopeful monsters like “spared this day” and “Englishman stranded in the blackheart wind” (it’s “a black, hot wind.” Seriously). Which means the unofficial lyrics you see on the internet are bad quartos. Some of my favorite inadvertent rewrites:

    There’s a Dylan songbook (long out of print, I’m sure) that has, in “North Country Blues,” “The stars one by one they are folding.” Whoever was taking down the lyrics seems to have had “The sky, too, is folding under you” in his head.

    On my first listen to “Not Dark Yet,” I heard “I’ve been down on the bottom of a whirlpool of lies.” I’m not the only one who’s heard that, but the official lyric is “world full of lies,” and I think that’s right, unfortunately.

    And in “Dignity” I heard “I met the sons of doctors and the sons of light in the bordertowns of despair.” I wish he’d written that.

  3. Babette says:

    At least we tried to play and sing with the primitive tools we had available.
    (But I admit learning language was neglected.)

    Guantanamera:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MRTC3cfWfGk

  4. Jonathan Smith says:

    More mishearing in your text I’m afraid. The tyres in Sweetheart Like You aren’t spinning, they’re squealing.

  5. LarryFyffe says:

    And it’s pronounced “tires” not ” tyres”!(lol)

  6. Stuart says:

    For years I thought Dylan sang

    ‘Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near
    She’s delicate and seems like Vermeer’

    in Visions of Johanna, which makes more sense to me than the true lyric:

    ‘Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near
    She’s delicate and seems like the mirror’

    I read a long article in an art magazine once on Dylan’s art which started with his reference to Vermeer, so obviously it’s not just me!

  7. Markus Basten says:

    …Mansy goes inflated…

  8. dss says:

    I have always heard, long after I knew better, that it was
    “you’re invincible, no secrets to conceal.”

    Invisible makes sense of course, but invincible is more defiant. It’s what you’ve earned by having nothing left to lose.

  9. Dan says:

    For me, in “Tangled Up in Blue,” I always heard

    Splitting up on the docks that night
    With a feeling that it was best

    When I finally heard the correct version (“Splitting up on a dark sad night”) at a concert a few years ago, I was stunned and not a little embarrassed. I mentioned this to a few fellow Dylan fans, and they told me that I’m not the only one among them to have misheard this.

  10. Ken Rattee says:

    Street Legal, Changing of the Guards, for years the line “She was torn between Jupiter and Apollo” was to my ears “She was torn between Jupiter and the bottle”. It still sounds that way to me even though I now know better.

  11. JB Styles says:

    I am reminded of Elvis Costello’s comments in the liner notes to his album, The Kojak Variety, where he admitted that he had misheard the lines in Your Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go “Relationships have all been bad. Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud” as “Relationships have all been bad. Mine have been like the lanes and rambles.”

    I always took comfort in knowing that even other artists sometimes have trouble deciphering Bob’s words.

  12. Douche Le Roux says:

    I always thought “meet me in the morning” ended with “sinking like a shiv” which gave it a prison ring. I was disappointed when I learned it was “sinking like a ship”

  13. chris james says:

    For about 50 years i heard`yes i received your letter yesterday , about the time the dawn outbroke` and was shocked to find it was `yes i received your letter yesterday , about the time the door knob broke`

  14. CircusMan says:

    Always thought it sounded more like “in the plate,” personally.

    To me the quintessential misheard lyric is “split up on the docks that night,” which sounds a good deal more Dylanesque than the rather banal “split up on a dark, sad night.”

  15. Notthere1956 says:

    I know this is unfashionably literal, but gamblers do actually gather things from coincidence – ie, their winnings are dependent on the fortuitous fall of the cards/throw of the dice/turn of the roulette wheel – except Bob obviously manages to make it sound much more mysterious and attractive…

  16. Richard Keys says:

    What about the classic, “The ants are my friend, blowin in the wind” (from a Guardian article on mishearing lyrics ). There is the slight problem that the official lyrics are not always what he sings. I have also read ‘Vermeer’ as the lyric, not just heard it, but I can’t remember where. The rcomment about misunderstandings that are in the spirit of the song I find helpful.

  17. LarryFyffe says:

    Of course, my mishearing is the correct one –

    “She delicate and seems like veneer”!

  18. Anton says:

    I prefer “I’m trying to read your poetry, but I’m helpless, like a rich man’s child”

    to the official

    “I’m tryin’ to read your portrait, but I’m helpless, like a rich man’s child”

  19. Anton says:

    Wow, I always thought “Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near / she’s delicate and seems like the mirror” was “… seems like veneer.” (which is delicate and more ornamental than protective)

  20. Anthony Schlagel says:

    I’ve always liked “poetry” instead of “portrait” in Temporary Like Achilles …

    “Trying to read your poetry / but I’m m helpless like a rich man’s child”

  21. Rajan Mahadevan says:

    Not being perhaps attentively ready, once misheard in the late 1960s starting with „Damn you masters of war ….“ The venom made sense, of course, and stuck in my ears for a long time.

  22. hobo4444 says:

    time is a notion but it ends at the “sure”

  23. TonyAttwood says:

    I still here it that way – I think it is a much better line, suggesting as it does he is trapped inside.

  24. Peter Foster says:

    Bob Dylan had the same problem with the Beatles. He always understood

    I GET HIGH!, I GET HIGH!

    (well, it was I CAN’T HIDE)

  25. Kiwipoet says:

    I always heard ‘dark side night’ but I much prefer ‘dock’s that night’. I love these mishearings, especially ‘Damn you masters of war.’ Morten’s comparison with Shakespeare’s First Folio is very apt.
    And thanks for the corrections Larry.
    By the way, some of my random notes at the end of the post got uploaded by mistake. Apologies!

  26. Jochen Markhorst says:

    And: the misheard lyric split up on the docks that night in “Tangled Up In Blue” would have built an intriguing bridge to the next song, to “Simple Twist Of Fate”:
    he hunts her down by the waterfront docks.

    I like it. Hereby, I would like to propose an official modification.

  27. Jochen Markhorst says:

    p.s.
    Great article, Kiwipoet. And most intriguing, those accidental notes. Particularly the slease bar tickles the curiosity. Let it come!

  28. J. J. King says:

    I’m hanging on
    To a solid rock
    Gay people, the foundation of the world!

  29. Brian Ahlborn says:

    I am pleased to know I’m not alone in my madness:

    a) Louise has always “seem(ed) like veneer” to me.
    b) Splitting up on “the docks that night” is what I’ve always heard and actually believe to be metaphorically a better lyric.

    But I’ve also always heard in Only a Hobo that the poor man was “too late for your future” (another one where I prefer my misinterpretation)…..

  30. David says:

    I not only switched in the waterfront docks from Simple Twist Of Fate into Tangled Up In Blue, but the rain’s still falling on his shoes from the first verse when she turns around to look at him as he’s walking away. It’s an image I can’t shake even though I now sing “dark, sad night.”

  31. LarryFyffe says:

    In Sweetheart Like You, Dylan sings:

    Got to be an important person to be in here, honey ….
    Got to have your own harem when you come through the door

    So in “Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts, who among us would be faulted for thinking Dylan sings:

    With his body guards and silver cane, and every harem place
    He took whatever he wanted, and he laid it all to waste

    When you come through the door harem

  32. LarryFyffe says:

    *Ignore last line duplicated by error

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