Dylan’s “Up to me”: No one else could play that tune.

 

by Jochen Markhorst

 

It is a beautiful melancholic title, the title of Richard Fariña’s only novel: Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me (1966).

He did not make it up himself, but borrowed it from a song by the early blues giant Furry Lewis, from “I Will Turn Your Money Green”.

 

 

With Fariña’s traveling companion Dylan, the song also echoes through, albeit some decades later. The second verse of “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven” (Time Out Of Mind, 1997) opens with When I was in Missouri / They would not let me be – the opening lines of the same “I Will Turn Your Money Green”.

Richard Fariña is a short, well-nigh cinematic and almost mythical intermezzo in Dylan’s life. The dropout student is already around in Dylan’s circles in the early 1960s. The men meet when Richard is still married to the popular folk singer Carolyn Hester (Dylan plays harmonica on her third album, in 1961). They become friends and the friendship gets an extra layer when Fariña remarries in ’63 with Joan Baez’s beautiful sister, the then seventeen-year-old, enchanting Mimi. That happiness does not last long; April 30, 1966, two days after the publication of his only novel, Richard is killed in a motorcycle accident in Carmel Valley, California, on a borrowed bike.

The book by David Hajdu, Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña (2001) is a comprehensive and occasionally somewhat larmoyant [maudlin] historiography about the lives of the foursome, especially about those years in which that special carom of creative talent around the sisters Baez takes place.

Hajdu is rather stuck in the debatable conviction that Fariña was the real creative genius and Great Guide, but nevertheless the work offers a rich look at Dylan’s years with Baez, documented, among other things, with revealing and candid letters from Baez’s private correspondence.

That song by Furry Lewis is not the only line that can be drawn between “Up To Me” and Fariña. The title similarity between Dylan’s song “Up To Me” and Fariña’s novel is evident, and besides that the lyrics also offer small references. Thunderbird is also the name of the bookstore where Fariña has a signing session a few hours before his death, the second line, Death kept followin’, trackin’ us down, recalls the two motorcycle accidents where one (Fariña) finds death and the other, Dylan, escapes. And with some lenient interpretation, there are some lines of verse which can be read as a reply to Fariña’s farewell salute to Bob Dylan, the bittersweet song “Morgan The Pirate”.

That song is released posthumously, on the album Memories (1968). The liner notes on that album are usually mistakenly attributed to Mimi, but they are written by Maynard Solomon, producer and founder of Baez’s record company Vanguard. The notes claim that this song is Fariña’s last song and ‘waves farewell to Bob Dylan.’

In the lyrics, sung by Mimi over an uptempo folkrock song propelled by electric guitars, the melancholy seems to dominate, but through the melancholy Richard administers some quite nasty blows:

It's bye bye buddy have to say it once again
I appreciate your velvet helping hand
Even though you never gave it I am sure you had to save it
For the gestures of the friends you understand
Now you've gotten even higher
And become your own supplier
And the number one denier of the one or two hard feelings

One or two hard feelings left behind

In this last verse the poet suggests that he loses Dylan to the drugs, in the verses before he accuses him of opportunism, disloyalty and deceiving the public.

Sir Henry Morgan, Morgan the Pirate (1635-1688), was one of the most successful pirates in the service of the English Navy and the terror of the Spanish Empire in the Caribbean. A link with the lyrics is hard to find and why Fariña names a song about Dylan after the legendary buccaneer, is puzzling too. Because he considers Dylan a marauder, song stealer, thief of thoughts? Maybe they went to film together (1960).

If the song has made some impression on Dylan, then not so much that he has written a clear reply to it. But, as with any artist, reflections and resonances from the man’s life creep into his work. At any rate, the protagonist in “Up To Me” defends himself against the kind of accusations as expressed in “Morgan The Pirate”; if I’d lived my life by what others were thinkin’, the heart inside me would’ve died and the following I was just too stubborn to ever be governed by enforced insanity.

Too thin, all in all, to classify “Up To Me” as an answer song, but that the song expresses a confetti rain of private concerns from a reflective narrator, that much is obvious.

Those reflections also invite to look for lines to Dylan’s biography and can be found indeed. Especially that last verse, of course:

And if we never meet again, baby, remember me
How my lone guitar played sweet for you that old-time melody
And the harmonica around my neck, I blew it for you, free
No one else could play that tune, you know it was up to me

… which is at least a retrospective on a past love relationship, and is thankfully abused by most of the exegetes as a further ‘proof’ that Blood On The Tracks thematises Dylan’s marital problems and upcoming divorce.

Here too, however, love affairs in the life of the private person Dylan undoubtedly belong to the many impressions that one way or the other trickle down into his artistic output. But Dylan does not write songs à clef or confessional poetry. Masterpieces like “Tangled Up In Blue”, “Simple Twist Of Fate” or this “Up To Me” are much more facetted than that.

Narrative “Up To Me” also appears, but unlike those seemingly epical songs on Blood On The Tracks, this song starts in medias res, in the middle of an action. Not early one morning, the sun was shinin’ nor they sat together in the park as the evening sky grew dark, but wham-bam: everything went from bad to worse, money never changed a thing.

The style figure contributes to the cinematic character of the song. In the literature, such an opening without an introductory exhibition can be found often enough (Paradise Lost by John Milton, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Edgar Allen Poe in The Tell-Tale Heart and equally in the epic poetry of classics such as Homer and Virgil), but it is much more common in the film noirs and thrillers. The Usual Suspects (1995), Kill Bill (2003), and especially in the crime films from the 40s and 50s. As in almost every film Dylan mentions in his autobiography Chronicles. “Joe, you’re under arrest,” is the opening of Rio Bravo (1959).

The Defiant Ones (1958) opens with the singing of someone in the back seat, out of view, and in the front the driver says to the co-driver: “Will you listen to him? We oughta make him ride up front. See how much singin’ he’ll do then.” The stranger, the protagonist Sidney Poitier, sings W.C. Handy’s “Long Gone” from 1920, a song that he will sing a few more times. The film seems to be summed up in the first verse of “Up To Me” and the song “Long Gone” gets a name-check (I know you’re long gone, I guess it must be up to me). And in the middle of the story starts La Strada (1954), so admired by Dylan:

Gelsomina! Mother says to come home right away. There’s a man here. He came on a big motorcycle. He says Rosa is dead.

The second big difference with the epic songs on Blood On The Tracks is the lack of a continuous storyline; not only the song itself, all twelve verses of “Up To Me” are equally abrupt overtures of film scripts, of film noirs, romantic dramas and psychological thrillers. The suggestion of a continuous storyline is there, sure. The protagonist is a retrospective I-figure in all twelve stanzas, the poet sprinkles reference words and indicative pronouns that seem to refer back to something that was told in a previous verse, conjunctions at the beginning of the verse insinuate that a thought from a previous verse is continued (‘And’, ‘So’).

However, it is only the suggestion of a plot. Unlike in the twin sister of “Up To Me”, in “Shelter From The Storm”, no comprehensive, coherent picture looms up; “Up To Me” appears to consist of puzzle pieces of twelve different puzzles, where at most – with some difficulty – one can distinguish ‘farewell’ or ‘love break’ as the overarching theme in ten of the twelve verses. The evoked images push the associations like a flaring pigeon swarm in all directions, and the images do not group themselves. Perhaps this song is the song that Dylan thinks about when he makes a mystifying point in Chronicles:

‘Eventually I would even record an entire album based on Chekhov short stories – critics thought it was autobiographical – that was fine.’

Probably a red herring, but true: blooming orchids, departing trains, a stale perfume smell, an officer’s club and an unhappy lover waiting outside all night … many images from “Up To Me” could just be borrowed from Chekhov’s stories. Though still slightly off: stale or attenuated smells are recurring at Chekhov, but it is always the stale smell of tobacco or cigars. Perfume is always ‘enchanting’, ‘intoxicating’ or ‘penetrant’. Orchids are not mentioned in any work, nor an officer’s club, no bluebirds or post office workers, only nightly languorous, unfortunate lovers sometimes do come along – but then again, that would apply to half of the world literature.

No, this is not a ‘song like a painting’, a song whose parts tell a different story than the whole. Only the music itself and the protagonist hold it together, but establishing a larger whole remains guesswork.

It does not detract from the beauty. The twelve miniatures contain beautiful one-liners (when you bite off more than you can chew you pay the penalty), enigmatic sub-characters (the old Rounder in the iron mask slipped me the master key), the softest put-down in Dylan’s catalogue (she’s everything I need and love but I can’t be swayed by that) and intriguing musings with beautiful metaphors. “We heard the Sermon on the Mount and I knew it was too complex / It didn’t amount to anything more than what the broken glass reflects.” The Sermon on the Mount complex? He can hardly mean Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – that one excels in plain language and clear messages. The opposite of Dylan’s “Up To Me”, actually.

The verses are larded with half-known, sometimes archaic expressions that the poet picks from ancient songs, forgotten films and classical poetry. A rounder is an extinct expression for a vagabond, a designation we only know from old songs (“Cocaine Blues”, “Delia”, “Lady And The Tramp”, from songs by Dylan’s old heroes like Dock Boggs and Blind Willie McTell). The verse with ‘Dupree’ and ‘Crystal’ in the ‘Thunderbird Café’ sounds like the plot of a Tennessee Williams film and the ‘bluebird’ is sung in hundreds of songs, but the concept of the blue bird of happiness who is singing in this song , comes from the play L’Oiseau blue (1908, adapted for film seven times, so far) by that other Nobel Prize winner, by Maurice Maeterlinck.

In short: “Up To Me” is one more of those sparkling, chameleonic Dylan songs from the hors category in which we also classify songs like “Desolation Row”, “Things Have Changed” or “Not Dark Yet”. And one of those songs in which we recognize the artistic kinship with fellow Nobel laureate T.S Eliot, with the cut and paste in a masterpiece like The Waste Lands. ‘A heap of broken images’, as T.S. puts it in line 22 of that work.

The overall consensus on why Dylan passes this masterpiece for Blood On The Tracks is: it is too similar to “Shelter From The Storm”. The first official release of Dylan’s recording is in 1985 for the Biograph collection box. In the accompanying booklet, Cameron Crowe writes: “A companion piece to Shelter From The Storm, performed in the same spare style.” And Crowe also sees the final verse as ‘proof’ that Dylan is autobiographical here, but Dylan himself closes that comment off, with the rebuttal we often hear: “I don’t think of myself as Bob Dylan. It’s like Rimbaud said: ‘I is another’.”

Much earlier we have already been able to get acquainted with the song in the version of Roger McGuinn. Dylan gives his old friend the song for his most beautiful solo album, Cardiff Rose (1976), on which it is also, despite all the beauty surrounding it, the highlight. The ex-Byrd opts for an electric, very lively, almost enthusiastic country-rock approach and proves once again that he has the rather rare skill to raise a Dylansong. Or maybe even more so: producer Mick Ronson. Both men have just toured with Dylan, with the Rolling Thunder Revue, and from there they also take back to the studio star musicians Rob Stoner, Howie Wyeth and David Mansfield, to record Cardiff Rose in Los Angeles. During that tour, the remarkable talent Ronson has already shown that he can give especially successful, enriching twists to Dylan songs (to “Going, Going, Gone”, for example). Here, with the enormous influence that he has as a producer and multi-instrumentalist (Ronson plays guitar, zither, flute, piano, organ, percussion and accordion), he can perfectly decorate such a Dylan song to his taste. Successful, undeniably; even unyielding Nobody-Sings-Dylan-Like-Dylan zealots nod thriftily, but approvingly to this cover.

The only other cover that comes close to this one is from Roger McGuinn again. In the twenty-first century he records a folky, hypnotic version of “Up To Me” for a tribute album (Dylan Covered, Mojo Magazine September 2005). More monotonous and acoustical then his pièce de résistance from thirty years earlier and again close to the beauty of Dylan’s original – even without Ronson McGuinn can deliver a masterpiece.

Roger McGuinn 1976:

 

Roger McGuinn 2005:

 

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3 Responses to Dylan’s “Up to me”: No one else could play that tune.

  1. LarryFyffe says:

    And Furry borrows from the line from the Blind Lemon:
    “Bet the Jack against the Queen
    It’s gonna turn your money green
    Jack O’ Diamonds is a hard card to play”

    In ‘Another Side’ liner notes, Dylan writes:
    “Used to be ashamed of me
    Now he wants t’ walk ‘long side of me
    Jack O’ Diamonds
    One-armed Prince”

    Furry takes the “If the river was whiskey, I was a duck” from the traditional ‘Rye Whiskey/Jack O’Diamond” song; Wilf Carter sings ‘ocean’.

    Riley Puckett in “Corn Licker Still” says:
    “Cut some them hickory poles
    Get some green ones now
    Won’t make no smoke”

    In the relatively recent ‘Copper Kettle’ it’s:
    “Don’t use no green or rotten wood
    They’ll get you by the smoke”

    The autobiographical card is indeed a hard card to play.

    Fragmented ‘metaphysical’ poets like TS Eliot tend to distant themselves from the ‘confessional’ and emotional, and go for art for art’s sake.’

  2. LarryFyffe says:

    * distance themselves

  3. LarryFyffe says:

    *That won’t make no smoke

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