Thoughts on Tell Tale Signs

images210/8: I have been able to hear all 3 CDs straight through. Yesterday morning at around 8 I sat in the Starbucks on the southeast corner of 81st street and Broadway, listening to Red River Shore. I watched people outside going to work–more precisely, I watched nannies taking whinging children to terrifyingly expensive private schools–and I thought, oh all of you all of you, you have to hear this, you have to stop what you’re doing and hear this. A friend of mine talks about hearing Hwy 61 when it was first released and stumbling out of his house wanting to say to everyone on the street, “Do you people know this exists???” I think there are two different impulses at work in my friend and in me, both put there by Bob Dylan’s music. In 1965 (I was 4 and I am imagining here, but I put faith in my imagining) , to listen to Hwy 61 was to be forcibly pulled into a new world, an unprecedented way of communicating through music and words, and not merely to feel astonished at the novelty of a new form of expression, but to get it–to feel you’ve just learned a new language on the spot. You run out into the street to see how the guy at the newsstand on the corner can just stand there counting change after you’ve heard Desolation Row.
In 2008, what made me look with wonder at the world, is the way Dylan at this stage in his art is able to communicate the…the…the ore of human life. What he is able to get across of moments of being, whether they are moments of loss or desire or anger or bitterness or surrender or warmth or the need for warmth or forgetting or remembering–whatever the moment is, it becomes our moment and I wanted all those people on the Upper West Side to know the feeling of wanting to live fully, that this music offers. Such aliveness and appetite this music can provoke.
Some smaller and more specific thoughts:
–We knew Mississippi was one of the greats even before hearing other versions, but the way different takes hold the song up to different lights is like a revelation. In each version we now have, the tempos offer different moods for how that mighty river is flowing. On the 3rd disc, I see the river carrying ships, cargo, a steady and strong current, not wild to bursting like the L&T, but strong and steady. For me, each version also gives a different take on that “one day too long.” Here in version #3, for the first time I hear that it is only one day too long. There is a confidence and warmth in the voice, a suppleness, and I hear that, well, that one day didn’t demolish everything else he did right. Malcolm Burn (see my post on All Those Who’ve Sailed…) talks about Dylan needing to find the right lyrics, and once those are found, the song has its mind and can start to walk by itself. I think Burn nails this with great perception. Do you think it is true that some songs only reveal new faces because the light of our attention changes through repeated listenings? And some songs reveal new faces because Bob’s performance illuminates a new face to lyrics that did not seem intrinsically magically suggestive? That LARS falls into the first category and Mississippi into the second? Hairsplitting? Regardless, I am relishing the different attitudes towards time, vitality, restlessness in the 3 Mississippis.

–Can’t Wait, both of them–my immediate reaction to this was oddly similar to my first reaction to One More Cup of Coffee: Where did this voice come from??? He settles into a range higher than usually comfortable for him, and then just makes love to those lyrics. The song, which, when growled quite wonderfully on the album always comes across in the TOOM mode of feeling at the breaking point, here in this outtake comes across as feeling overflowing its banks. Placido Domingo could learn from this. In the TOOM version, I see the woman blithely tormenting him, living a fine life with her back to the singer, filing her nails, and just ignoring the winged chariot that the singer, despairing and, gosh, not young, hears all the time. But in these outtakes, who could play games with this singer? The grace of the simple lines about her having time and his having none. Where did this voice come from? I say definitely play this back to back with One More Cup of Coffee, and see what I mean.
–Tell Ol’ Bill. One of the GEMS of my bootleg collection is about an hour of the Tell Ol’ Bill recording sessions. I honestly can’t tell if this is unbroken time or some bits are spliced together. Bob talking and laughing (”I’ve got two takes left in me!”) and telling the band either to play a turnaround or not to play a turnaround, and then launching into about a half-dozen takes of this song. I love nature and time in this song, the tranquil lakes and streams he walks by, the cold, the hard ground, again the restlessness of these later songs. (Much to say on that.. The song is visual, dream-like (and many thanks to LArry Sloman’s commentary with the set, for grounding me in the fact that this is a love song–I just kept floating through the clouds and lakes…). Well, in these recording sessions, Bob is trying out different approaches, and he says, how about a minor key. And in a mere moment, his voice, the musicians, all produce a completely new song, that feels sepia-toned and heady as the major key, official version does not. Here it is for all to enjoy.
–Red River Shore. You know the songs where, you hear them once or twice and all you really know is a depth of feeling that tells you only that you will never tire of it, and never get to the bottom of it? I think this is one of them. I am going to crawl out on a looong and shaky limb here and say that I wonder of the girl of the Red River Shore will be the Johanna of these later songs–that is, she is what the singer must conceive in order to make the song happen, and her absence is exactly what the song ends up realizing.
I heard of a guy who lived a long time ago
A man full of sorrow and strife
If someone around him died and was dead
He could bring ‘em back to life
I don’t know what kind of language he used
Or if they do that kind of thing anymore
Sometimes I don’t know if anybody saw me here at all…

I’m transcribing this from hearing it–now, this verse brings me to me knees for reasons too much to describe. First, think of In The Garden, and then this. “Did they know?” Think of the endless conversation about states of faith and doubt that happen between these songs. Second, “what kind of language he used”–it isn’t just that this brings up a very strange and unnerving echo to LARS, but the line is such an arrow straight into the heart of a mystery. What a dreadful way to try to get across the shivers that this line can invoke when first hearing it. Much like “There’s no one here, the gardener is gone.” If they do that kind of thing anymore. This also reminds me of the Golem myths, and we may have a remarkable Bob-worthy conflation of two worlds of belief. Well, this made me cry, and I cried from facing a kind of honesty that is unlike anything else. To be able to see oneself, see the relation between yourself and faith that is so individual, and so unwilling to rewrite this relation to be consistent with your past, and then make me see it also–don’t you ever cry just from the strength of an encounter and not from its pathos?


The more I listen to Red River Shore–the version on CD 1–the more I head towards a comparison to Visions of Johanna. At the center of both songs is not a particular woman, but the desire conjured by the dream of a woman, and, the deeper need that is satisfied by keeping this desire alive. Both songs begin in darkness and end with what could be a sharper knowledge of that darkness?

Visions of Johanna plays out the restlessness of the imagination, the sheer motive to make something out of nothing, and the way this motive and desire can’t be distinguished from each other. The singer wittily surrenders to the night’s tricks, which are in fact the brighter visions his mind calls up in the setting of artificial light and a woman who, because she can be heard and seen and felt, is the world that tempts him not with its satisfactions, but with the challenge to his imagination: the song can be heard as a story of the wild energies of the young singer defying everything in sight with this Johanna, this inner light and hunger. He sees the life outside his window, he makes poetry from his lover’s cries, he wrenches himself from his past muttering at the wall, he visits the museums where the expressions that preceded his have a life that may break free of their cages–will his song do the same? He keeps traveling on his visions, his world breaks freer, our own minds are tested to new limits by envisioning what he sees. Can he make something truly new? Really return everything which was owed? Just as we are learning to see his visions, it’s over. What’s left are the keys that will open everything–but we don’t get what lies behind the doors they can open–and the rain that’s been falling since the song began, and the visions themselves, the tricks that happen when, as Wallace Stevens wrote, we “light the first light of evening, as in a room/In which we rest and for small reason, think/The world imagined is the ultimate good.” Dylan takes the quiet loveliness of Stevens’ thoughts and propels them with the wild lawless desire of youth, and the genius to force shapeliness and beauty out of his cauldron. Whatever Johanna is, she is what he needs to see in order to get into the cauldron.

Ain’t it just like the night–what a cool line, what a cool attitude, this is what cool is, isn’t it? I used to live above the Ramrod Bar on West Street, and someone once told me James Dean used to hang around the dives in that neighborhood, tasting some kind of trouble, and I can see James Dean making that turn down West 10th Street when he ought to be somewhere else, and saying to himself “Well, ain’t it just like the night…”

We are many light years from The Cool at the beginning of Red River Shore. This singer’s voice has a delicacy and a roughness and a gravity to it, it’s beautifully veined granite compared to the fire and ichor of the young man singing Visions of Johanna in 1965 and 66. And he is facing the night with all of his–now his vision has grown to see not only his own desire and ambitions, but the way it is for all people. Some of us can laugh at the moonlight, we can laugh down the dark. And some of us want so desperately to imagine the reality of angels awaiting us and saving us, that we accept the terrible abjection and fear that accompanies this particular desire. These are compassionate and vivid images of ways of being human: they are inclusive. This is not the Stephen Dedalus-like singer of Visions of Johanna, pressing past the common human tide into the floods of creative genius.

The singer of Red River Shore returns endlessly to the girl of this vague, lyrical cliched setting. We see a riverbank, a tree, a mild blue sky, the river grey or blue and moving past this place whose simplicity is the frame for the girl. She is the creature of this timeless and indistinct landscape. She is that to which the singer cannot help returning, and so she is the opposite of Johanna: she is not the unseen motive and goal, she is not the future, she is the eternal past for the singer. The singer in VOJ could not be satisfied by Louise’s desire; the singer of RRS turns away from the many pretty maids right outside his door–overwhelmed by them–and seeks only the love of the one girl. We get only one hint of her nature, when she tells him she will not marry him, and he should “live a quiet life.” Belonging to the rushing river, she cannot give him a quiet life? (I like that line and wonder about it. )

On the singer goes, through the world, all he sees and does only returns him to the girl, every mention of her in the song should call up for us our own slope of green grass, light and shade through leaves, light on the water. The visions of this song must be a sustained and personal landscape to which we return as the singer does: a strange and impossible peace. This is very different from the strenuous and exhilarating work we do to keep up with the jelly-faced women and the fish truck.

At the end of VOJ, all that’s left are the visions and we can take this several ways: the visions have been realized, the song is born, the artist is dissolved into his art. Or, the artist has tried, but his visions, like all visions, remain his own, all he can do is show us what it looks like to seek expression with an energy never seen before. (I vote for the second reading–VOJ is the greatest demonstration of the impossibility of all art, and therefore it is not merely the greatest work of art, it is alone among all artistic expression.)

At the end of Red River Shore, the singer erases himself–he tries to make his memory-desire into some kind of truth, and here he takes a risk way more dangerous than anything the boy in Visions does: he says he’ll go back and straighten it out. And of course he does straighten it out, he exposes everything–no one remembers him, there is no memory but his own. He erases himself by confronting truth AND the dream, the art, the song, the memory continue because he never leaves the world of the song. There is a place, the Red River Shore, there was a girl, I was there, and no one ever saw me there, no one but me remembers this. How can I get across the magic of what he has done here? He exposes a dream and remains in it at the same time. The visions of the girl from the Red River Shore are all that remain, but in such a golden light of sadness, loneliness, weariness.

And there is the further, deeper magic of the allegorical verse, which merits more than I give it right now, but all I want to say is that this verse is exactly the language of the rest of the song: distant, dream-like, folk language–stripped down to nothing but fact and wonder. The singer has found himself missing, invisible, at the end of the song–and someone once could bring a person back to life, but what are the words that can do that?

So I offer this song (and I prefer the version on disc 1), its language as plain as rocks and water, its melody a quiet swell, as something on the lines of Blind Willie McTell and Up To Me–we didn’t get it on its first pass through the world, but now that we have, nothing will be the same.


I’ve been listening to all these Mississippis, and thinking about what is so essential to Dylan’s work that I expect it, relish it, marvel at it, and take it for granted: this would be the plain fact of Dylan’s constantly covering himself, constantly making something I knew into something I don’t know, but then again I might. I already carried on about my preference for the L&T Mississippi, but of course I’ve changed my mind, and now each of them offers me different pleasure and different meaning, and the thought of choosing one is meaningless. This has led me to think about other artists who we associate with multiple versions of their own works that we can talk about as projects, and not as drafts. Wordsworth returning to the Prelude, and the experience we can now have of reading at least the 1805 and 1850 versions running alongside each other. Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series. The changing motif of the Minotaur in Picasso’s work. These stand out for me right at the moment as strong examples of art that challenges our ideas of same and different, process and completion, part and whole. A Rouen Cathedral in sunlight and a Rouen Cathedral in shadows: if we know the Cathedral as an object we take in through our senses, then how is a shadowy cathedral a different thing from a sunlit one? Aren’t the two paintings entirely different things since they present entirely different experiences of color and depth? Thanks to Monet, these questions are not sophomoric exercises. When I look at the paintings themselves, I see paint doing different things with edges, with corners, with recessions.

I hope I haven’t lost Bob in here. If you take these 4 Mississippis, you have something considerably more involving and…and….beautiful than Monet’s project. You have 4 different lives, all told with just about the same words, a recognizably similar melody. Shifts in tempo and phrasing and vocal timbre (I hate that word) don’t just give us different moods, but different lives. Must end for the moment, but will pick up where I left off here, and if god forbid anyone is reading this, feel free to jump in


4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Tell Tale Signs

  1. Very nice blog. I love Chronicles too and am always defending late-period Dylan, or even post-1974 Dylan, against the people who seem to like him for the power he seemed to have in the culture at a certain time.

  2. Thank you very much for your comment. You speak to what is probably my strongest goal, which is a conversation about Dylan’s work that gets beyond the standard narrative where everything is cast in the shadow of 63-66. To me there is a human richness, a depth, to his later work that uniquely moves and inspires me. I am always so happy to encounter other people who share some if that response.

  3. Just stumbled upon this blog in a fit on insomnia…. You are not helping matters so much to digest. Red river shore…. I still feel the sense that the woman was real but the moment so incidental in her life ( and the lives of others around them) that it is lost forever…. Somewhat like something that horrifies you in embarrassment as a child is not seen and recalled by others….

    And has any hopeful love ever been more crushed by the line go home and lead a quiet life…. You can’t stand with me I am too much for you go find someone who is your own speed

    Anyway lovely lovely writing thank you


    1. I think Bob Dylan is generally not too helpful with insomnia, even once or twice removed on a blog, so I am sorry you had to stumble on us here under the cloud of sleeplessness. Certainly the feeling that the Red River SHore woman is unreal is an impression, a feeling for me, and her realness seems crucial to your strong response to the song. “Something that horrifies you in embarrassment as a child…” I like that impression a lot, there is a strange terrible sense of shame in the song. Thank you for writing, maybe next time you are beset with insomnia, better to find a blog devoted to the history of HVAC installation. Something like that.

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