The Liner Notes That Sank
by Christopher Ricks
This article about the missing liner notes for Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Vol. 3 appeared in "The Telegraph", issue 50, Winter 1994. As can be seen, the track selection and order changed between the time Christopher was asked to write the liner notes and the time the CD actually appeared1. I've added them here by request to give Christopher's work a wider audience.
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Christopher Ricks: "Jeff Rosen 'phoned me and asked me to write liner notes for the latest volume of Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits. On a Friday in October, I finally got the order of the songs; on the Monday, the liner notes were in his hands. But, life up there being what it is, they were apparently "too late". Perhaps he just didn't want to hurt my feelings. Liked them a lot, he said upon receipt, but wasn't sure what Sony marketing would think. In the end, "too late". So (The Titanic sails at dawn), the liner notes that sank. But not without trace, for here they are, for what they are worth."
JOKERMAN (Infidels, October 1983 [Track 6]
"Standing on the waters": the opening miracle-words for the opening song of Infidels (November 1983). Standing, even harder than walking on the water." ...casting your bread": you cast bread on the waters as bait (throwing food away but to get more food, loaves and fishes). Casting, too, with the skill of a fly fisherman. "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." Jokerman plays all the holy tricksters who eternally help us to face the end of our time. "Only a matter of time 'til night comes steppin' in". Dylan casts at once this song as bread on the waters, the first track then as now.
HURRICANE (single, November l975, then Desire, January 1976) [Track 4]
Something even better than sooth-saying: truth-telling. Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, middleweight boxer, jailed in 1966 for a triple murder. I Accuse: Dylan's equivalent to "J'Accuse", the novelist Zola telling the truth about those who had lied about Captain Dreyfus. Rubin Carter was falsely accused? Worse: "Rubin Carter was falsely tried". And the ending, off the end of the song? Carter was not finally, fully, free until 1988. A happy ending, then? "But it won't be over till they clear his name/And give him back the time he's done". That last thing, as everybody knows, they can never do. Time is for keeps.
TRUE LOVE TENDS TO FORGET (Street-Legal, June 1978) [replaced]
Would true love protest quite so much? So slippery, love. The rhymes are lovely here, and apt to that tricky business love. To rhyme "again" and "when" is to act out what you are talking about, for every rhyme is a matter of again and when. And rhyme is a kind of loving, two things becoming one yet not losing their own identity. As for rhyming on "forget": rhyming depends on memory, and here "forget" starts in the arms of "regret", and it ends, far out, in "Tibet". The Dalai Lama.
TANGLED UP IN BLUE (Blood On The Tracks, January 1975) [Track 1]
Driving into love, and reversing out of it. Into...? Pain, stoicism, no recrimination. "There was music in the cafes at night/And revolution in the air". The air is where it stayed, that '60s revolution. "So now I'm going back again". The song, though, doesn't just go back again, it knows how to keep on keeping on, with its refrain unwinding, unendingly mysterious. We know about feeling blue, and about the blues, but what is it, to be "tangled up in blue"? The colour is as deep as sky or sea.
GOTTA SERVE SOMEBODY (Slow Train Coming, August 1979) [Track 10]
"You may be an ambassador to England or France": uh-oh, wait for it. But. That's better. Or worse. ("It may be the devil or it may be the Lord".) Dylan respects the patient power of life's most important little insister, But, who will not be cheated or defeated. The voice, so wiry and wily, gives exuberance to the remorseless reminding. "But you're gonna have to serve somebody". To the very end. And back round again, for the words of the title, Gotta Serve Somebody, are never heard in the song.
FOREVER YOUNG (Planet Waves, January 1974) [Track 5]
"May God bless and keep you always". Today, Dylan is not going to start by issuing commands, whether tender ("Lay, lady, lay") or sardonic ("Go 'way from my window"). "May your wishes all come true". Oh, and my wishes for you. And the last particular wish in the song? "May your song always be sung". You have one of your own, you know (sings this unique singer to us), your song. A prayer is not an end in itself. Which may be why on Planet Waves Dylan ended side 1 and started side 2 with this song, differently sung. That dear turn disappears from a one-sided CD.
SILVIO (Down In The Groove, June 1988) [Track 8]
Up and away, "I gotta go" - but just hear how reluctant the song is to end, repeating over and over again that it has gotta go, a tearaway song that can't tear itself away. "Looks like tomorrow is a-comin' on fast" brisk, at risk. "One of these days and it won't be long". Days aren't. And the last prophecy before the last chorus? "Going down to the valley and sing my song". And? "Let the echo decide if I was right or wrong". Just like that, right or wrong. In the end.
DIGNITY (outtake, Oh Mercy sessions, March 1989) [Track 7]
Trust Jokerman to include a hitherto-unreleased song among his Greatest Hits. (Just wait: it will be. That's a promise.) Everybody, whether fat man or thin man or Englishman, is looking for dignity. Some people even think of dignity as Wanted. "Someone showed me a picture and I just laughed/Dignity never been photographed". Dignity can't be snapped - or snapped. Every verse winds up there: "dignity". One of the best poems about a wry search for a necessity of life since, oh, Plain Dealing's Downfall, 300 years ago.
RING THEM BELLS (Oh Mercy, October 1989) [Track 9]
The poets have always loved to ring them bells, even if they'd have said those bells. Edgar Allan Poe. Alfred Tennyson, who prayed that men will ring out the old (spite, disease), and ring in the new (peace, love). Oh that it were possible. For, in the end, "they're breaking down the distance between right and wrong". Yet sung so differently from the end of Silvio. Listen to the distance that Dylan puts here between right and wrong by his intake of breath (a gulp, almost) between those crucial words.
TIGHT CONNECTION TO MY HEART (HAS ANYBODY SEEN MY LOVE) (Empire Burlesque, June 1985) [replaced]
An intriguing disconnection between what a "tight connection" may be (you can't be confident of making that plane) and what it is here. "Tight connection to your heart". Heart to heart. "Has anybody seen my love?" She must be around somewhere. (Has anybody seen my cuff-links?) But maybe "my love" isn't a person, it's my feelings. Has anybody ever really seen them? "I don't know". So the song reels off into the distance, on and on with "tight connection". What a hold she has. But its last words had been, not an exit exactly, but an admission: "Never could learn to hold you, love,/And call you mine".
THE GROOM'S STILL WAITING AT THE ALTAR (single, September 1981, later added to Shot Of Love) [Track 3]
"Prayed in the ghetto": immediate prayer again, but urgent this time, no time even to say I prayed. "Cities on fire, phones out of order". Apocalypse Now. And Then? "I see the turning of the page,/Curtain rising on a new age". Let us pray. Hoping against hope. But with the rhythm showing no mercy, and the energies feeling destructive. Things are bad all over. And arsy-versy. "See the groom still waitin' at the altar". It's supposed to be the bride that's left waiting at the altar. But would that go for the Bride of Christ? "They're killing nuns and soldiers".
BROWNSVILLE GIRL (Knocked Out Loaded, July 1986) [Track 12]
The end of an age, an age ago, ending "long before the stars were torn down". At 11 minutes, it has world enough and time to be a love story, a trek, a brief epic... Patience, it urges. We wait for eager ages for his voice to introduce us to the Brownsville Girl herself. Great rolling stanzas ("and it just comes rolling in"), and memories of the Rolling Thunder Revue, especially since Sam Shepard plays his part. About films, it has the filmic flair of Dylan's underrated masterpiece, Renaldo & Clara. Delicious yelps from the back-up women, who sometimes comically refuse to back him up. He: "They can talk about me plenty when I'm gone". They: "Oh yeah?" It moves, and yet stays put, circling back round. One of those great still songs.
UNDER THE RED SKY (Under The Red Sky, September 1990) [Track 13]
Simplicity itself, from the nursery rhyme album, and sinister like all the best nursery rhymes. Or grim, like Grimm's Fairy Tales. Dylan sings two plain lines and then sings them again at a bright heartless pace. And suddenly the shocking flat turn of events: "One day the little boy and the little girl were both baked in a pie". Not just your usual four and twenty blackbirds. And, in a way, worse is to come, at the end: "and the river went dry". But hope springs eternal. For how could there be nursery rhymes if there were no children? There must be more children where those came from.
KNOCKIN' ON HEAVEN'S DOOR (Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, July 1973) [Track 14]
The lawman is dying before our eyes. On screen. That great American myth, the Western, is dying too. Well, we all have it coming, death. In the words of the poet Larkin: "Most things may never happen, this one will". Just remember that death is not the end. "Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door". It's the lawman's outlined epitaph, while being the deepest and darkest of knock-knock jokes. God knows what the answer is. Let us hope He will open up.
"so anything that ain't got no end's
just gotta be poetry in one
way or another"
(11 Outlined Epitaphs, The Times They Are A-Changin', February 1964)
1The released tracklist had Changing Of The Guards (from Street-Legal, 1978) and Series Of Dreams (from The Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3, 1991) instead of True Love Tends To Forget and Tight Connection To My Heart.
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